Fake Victims Lead to Real Arrests in Online Child Sex Stings

Federally funded police task forces carry out thousands of online stings each year, despite little evidence that they prevent abuse.

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Fake Victims Lead to Real Arrests in Online Child Sex Stings

Federally funded police task forces carry out thousands of online stings each year, despite little evidence that they prevent abuse.

On July 8, 2018, Norman Achin, then a 50 year-old public school teacher living in Northern Virginia, signed up for the adults-only dating app Grindr. Two days later, he was contacted by someone calling himself AlexVA. Soon after they started talking, AlexVA told Achin that he was 14 years old. “I was looking for adult fun. Did not expect to run into your age,” Achin responded through the app on July 12. “Not interested in that kind of relationship with a boy.” The next day, he reported AlexVA to Grindr for violating its terms of use, and Grindr suspended AlexVA’s account.

In reality, AlexVA was a police officer in the Fairfax County Police Department who had been communicating with a number of men on Grindr as part of an undercover investigation.

On July 22, Achin sent a nude photo to the suspended AlexVA account—he says he doesn’t know how it happened and that he’d been communicating with other Grindr users, all adults. Achin had made similar mistakes before. On July 12, he’d sent texts intended for another adult user to AlexVA. AlexVA responded but didn’t tell Achin that he had the wrong person until they’d been exchanging messages for several hours. Achin apologized.

“You want something with an adult” he texted to AlexVA. “That’s a bad idea. Don’t you see?”

Despite Achin’s apparent efforts to dissuade AlexVA from seeking sex with adults, he was arrested on July 23, and in May 2019 a Fairfax County judge found him guilty of using a communications device to solicit a minor.

State records show Achin had no prior criminal history, nor did the prosecutor introduce evidence at trial that he’d ever sexually abused children or possessed child pornography. Still, Achin was sentenced to seven months in prison and was put on the state’s sex offender registry. He lost his job teaching at a public school and his pension. He now has a retail job and does gig work to make ends meet and pay off thousands of dollars of legal debt, he says.

Achin’s arrest was part of a bigger trend in policing. From 2018 to 2020, law enforcement agencies across the country launched almost 2,500 such “proactive” sting investigations. These investigations are carried out by special task forces funded by the federal government as part of a national strategy to prosecute online sex crimes against children. (2020 is the last year for which data is available for most task forces.)

However, the law enforcement agencies that run these task forces receive funding based in part on how many arrests and convictions they get. This may create an incentive to pursue fictitious-victim sting operations, which are often cheaper and less time-intensive than investigations of crimes with real victims. But experts on child trafficking say it’s unclear how many crimes against children these stings actually prevent, and the federal government hasn’t looked into whether the money spent on these task forces is actually keeping kids from being victimized.

The rise of the internet, in the 1990s, brought with it new types of crime that police forces needed new methods to combat. In 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention started a task force initiative, the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) program, in response to a proliferation of child sexual abuse images and an increase in adults seeking out underage kids online. That year, the agency made its first grants, which went to ten local police agencies around the country. Still, the program’s history shows no federal funding until 2003, and it remained small through 2008, getting less than $17 million each year.

A horrific crime would change that. On Jan. 1, 2002, 13-year-old Alicia Kozakiewicz was kidnapped outside her Pittsburgh home by a 38-year-old man who had chatted with her online for months while posing as a teenage boy. He took Kozakiewicz to a townhouse outside of Washington, D.C., where he chained her by the neck, sexually assaulted and tortured her, and live-streamed all of it on the internet. Someone reported the livestream to the FBI, and three days later agents broke into the house and rescued her.

Almost six years later, Kozakiewicz told her story to a congressional committee. “I walked out the front door and found that the boogeyman is real and he lives on the web,” she testified. Her account supercharged a bill sponsored by then-Senator Joe Biden that became the PROTECT Our Children Act of 2008, which quadrupled funding for the task force program, to about $75 million.

“This bill will help us form a coordinated effort to go after child predators…. We know where many of these people are, and we need to go get them,” Biden said when he introduced the legislation.

Since 2010, ICAC’s funding has averaged about $30 million a year. In 2021, task forces conducted more than 137,000 investigations. The vast majority of those have been of people who manufacture, distribute, or possess child sexual abuse images, according to program data. In 2020 for example, California’s ICAC Task Force conducted approximately 3,500 investigations, of which about 3,100 involved alleged crimes involving child sexual abuse images.

However, many task force investigations involve adults using electronic communications to contact minors and going to meetup spots to see them in person. These are known as “traveler” cases, and the majority of them involve no actual children but are proactive stings like the one that ensnared Achin. In 2011, task forces conducted 1,354 investigations in traveler cases. Of those, 77 percent were proactive investigations in which undercover officers, not children, were the only victims, according to a 2011 report to the U.S. Attorney General, which contains the only performance data on the task force program publicly released to date.

Sentence lengths in these cases depend on the state. In Virginia, where Achin lives, prison terms range from 1 to 5 years and the person is placed on the state sex-offender registry. (The registry requirement is no small matter: it can, as New York State’s court system puts it, “lead to social disgrace and humiliation, loss of relationships, jobs, and housing, and both verbal and physical assaults.”)

The Northern Virginia task force that investigated Achin, NOVA-DC ICAC, is one of 61 ICAC task forces around the country. In 2022, it received approximately $400,000 through the program, which was funded at about $35 million the prior year.

For NOVA-DC ICAC, the majority of investigations have involved no real children in all but one year since 2011, the earliest year for which the task force provided data. In 2017, for example, it conducted 169 proactive traveler investigations and only 20 reactive ones, according to data obtained through records requests by the group Citizens Against Government Entrapment (CAGE), which was started by the parents of young men who have been nabbed in such stings in Washington State.

But the methods they use may not square with what the federal government itself requires of grantees. A 2017 ICAC manual on operational and investigative standards notes that officers involved in proactive investigations “shall allow the Investigative target to set the tone, pace, and subject matter of the online conversation.”

That’s not how some police stings seem to go, however. According to a court filing, in August 2022, the Washington State Patrol carried out a sting in which a detective posed as a female named Crystal on the dating app Skout, apparently listing her age as 32. “Crystal” connected with a man named Josh and sent him her number. After nearly an hour of messaging, during which they exchanged more than 30 texts, she finally told him that she was only 12 years old. “I mean it’s cool we can be friends,” he texted, later suggesting they “hang out at Taco Bell.” “[S]orry dude not into just hangin lol,” Crystal texted back. Later that night, Josh appeared to try to disengage, but Crystal responded with several more messages. Eventually, he followed Crystal’s instructions to meet at a predetermined location for sex, where he was arrested, according to a court filing.

Police behavior in that case fits with the approach WSP lieutenant Michael Eggleston described to a local TV station in 2016. “We’re not enticing people to do something they don’t already have on their mind. We’re just taking advantage of their weakness,” he said.

The Appeal asked NOVA-DC ICAC spokesperson Robert Brown for an example of a recent proactive sting. He pointed to a Fairfax County Police Department press release from August, in which the department announced that an operation had netted six men, for allegedly soliciting minors online. Virginia criminal records show that none of the men had previously been arrested for a sexual offense, and that none of the arrests resulted in charges for additional sexual crimes. (The August arrest of one of the six appears to have been for a probation violation related to an underlying 2018 conviction for using a communications system to propose a sex act with a minor, which itself could have been the result of a proactive sting.) Brown referred The Appeal’s followup questions about the men’s records to the FCPD, which didn’t respond to multiple inquiries.

These events fit with the conclusion of a study published in the Manitoba Law Journal in 2020 which examined proactive child sexual exploitation stings by the Canadian police. The study found that such operations “rarely uncover any instances of harmful behaviour, ‘real’ victimization, or any criminal activity aside from the initial conversation.”

Perverse incentives to inflate arrest and conviction numbers may lead ICAC task forces to focus on sting operations, despite their questionable public safety benefits. The PROTECT law ties ICAC funding to the number of investigative leads a task force generates and the number of cases it refers for prosecution.

For many law enforcement agencies, proactive operations are cheaper and easier than those involving real victims. For example, in a December 2015 email, Washington State Patrol captain Roger Wilbur reported to a higher-up about a recent operation in which officers posed as kids online. “Compared to other cases that can take a year or longer, may result in a few years in prison, costs [sic] hundreds of man hours, and still only result in a single arrest, this is a significant return on investment,” he wrote. “Mathematically, i[t] only cost[s] $2500 per arrest during this operation! Considering the high level of potential offense, this is a meager investment that pays huge dividends.”

But operations that target people who don’t appear to be actively looking for sex with minors may actually drain resources from interventions that could rescue real victims, say advocates and experts.

Jean Bruggeman, executive director of Freedom Network USA, which describes itself as the country’s largest advocacy network focused on preventing human trafficking, says there’s been no evaluation of whether proactive stings are effective in preventing abuse. According to Bruggeman, one way to tell whether the people being arrested are actually dangerous is if, at the time of arrest, police find evidence that the accused committed other crimes against children. If they fail to, it’s “highly problematic,” said Bruggeman. It means those arrested may not have had criminal intent and that these operations are taking time and money away from cases involving actual kids, she says.

Bruggeman, who spent three years at the U.S. Department of Justice as a human trafficking fellow in the Office for Victims of Crime, suggests that instead of evaluating task forces based on arrest and conviction numbers, the Department of Justice could use a deep-dive program evaluation method known as a “grant stat.” This would involve tracking key indicators of task forces’ performance–such as the share of ICAC arrests in which police discover evidence of other sexual crimes involving children—so that they are held accountable for achieving their goals. But that type of review has never been done with ICAC, DOJ spokesperson Tannyr Watkins said in an email. She didn’t respond to a follow-up email asking why it had not been done.

At least one judge has expressed discomfort with efforts to reel in would-be criminals through proactive stings. “The government verges too close to tyranny when it sends its agents trolling through bars, tempts people to engage in criminal conduct, and locks them up for unconscionable periods of time when they fall for the scheme,” federal judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote in 2014 regarding a case in which residents of a poor Arizona neighborhood joined an undercover agent’s plan to steal nonexistent cocaine from a fake drug cartel.

Experts have expressed similar concerns about internet sex stings. A team of researchers from the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center wrote in 2010 that the “widening net created by expanding undercover operations and resources appears to be pulling in greater numbers of less hardened and younger offenders.” Law enforcement agencies, the researchers said, should take measures to ensure that they aren’t “increasing the likelihood of entrapment, cases in which individuals that might not otherwise have committed a crime against a youth are enticed to do so.”

Kathleen Hambrick, co-founder of Citizens Against Government Entrapment, said in an email that the group is trying to convince legislators in Washington State to change the focus of the state’s efforts to prevent online crimes against kids. In 2021, CAGE helped persuade lawmakers to do what the federal government has not: fund a study of whether fictitious victim stings done by the state’s ICAC task force—in an ongoing operation called “Net Nanny”—are effective in deterring or reducing crime. The study, which is due to be released next June, also is comparing the criminal histories of those arrested in stings with the histories of those arrested in traditional reactive investigations, an apparent effort to determine whether stings are misdirecting resources toward people who pose a low risk of actually offending.

CAGE also convinced the state’s Sex Offender Policy Board to recommend that the Legislature create sentencing alternatives for those convicted as a result of fictitious stings, though lawmakers haven’t yet acted on that recommendation, according to Hambrick. CAGE is also urging researchers to do more studies of the effectiveness of proactive stings.

In the meantime, Achin has gone public about his case and has gotten involved in efforts to change police procedure. He has been advocating for legislation that would restrict the use of proactive stings and he’s trying to convince criminal justice reformers to talk about the issue more. He is also writing a book about the topic, he says.

Achin’s response to his experience is not typical. Many of those caught in proactive stings do the opposite, staying in the shadows and not talking. “A lot of people, you should know, are on the sidelines, terrified,” Achin said. “The police benefit from this, politicians benefit from this, and it’s destroying lives indiscriminately, and somebody has to stand up and say something.”

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