Grants target Internet crimes

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Area law enforcement officers say recent grant funding will allow them to respond to Internet crimes more quickly and effectively.

The Scott County Computer Forensics and Online Investigations Initiative and the SEMO Cyber Crimes Task Force, of Poplar Bluff, Mo., received 2008 Internet Cyber Crime Grant Program awards, announced by Gov. Matt Blunt on July 2. The Scott County initiative will receive $20,946.72 and the SEMO Cyber Crimes Task Force will receive $48,168.93.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that one in seven children will be solicited sexually on the Internet before they turn 18, and the two task forces aim to change that statistic in Southeast Missouri.

Jeff Shackleford, SEMO Cyber Crime Task Force coordinator with the Poplar Bluff Police Department, said the task force will use the grant to purchase new equipment and to fund an additional online investigator position. The SEMO Cyber Crime Task Force is a multijurisdictional squad, including Cape Girardeau Police Department detective Henry Voelker, that addresses Internet crimes, primarily those against children.

"This is the largest amount of funding we've received to date," Shackleford said.

Shackleford said the task force plans to acquire laptops with wireless cards that will allow investigators to access the Internet from remote locations. The task force also will buy software that enables the collection of digital forensic evidence and bolsters online investigative abilities to help catch Internet sex predators and child pornographers.

"The grant will increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the SEMO Cyber Crime Task Force," Shackleford said. "It will give us advanced technology to combat online crime and hardware to conduct our own online forensic investigations."

Shackleford said the funding will enable the task force to gather evidence from suspects' computers on-site instead of sending the computers to other agencies. He said the task force had to send the computers off-site initially, which cost valuable time in investigations.

Lt. Jerry Bledsoe, head of the Scott County Computer Forensics and Online Investigations Initiative, said the grant will quicken investigations in Scott County as well.

"Now when we seize a computer and need to recover data, we're going to be able to do it quickly," Bledsoe said. "In the first part of 2005, we worked a case with a missing girl. If we had been able to get on her computer quickly to find out who she was talking to before she disappeared, I think we could have found her faster."

In addition to providing overtime pay for officers assisting in online investigations, Bledsoe said the grant will fund a dedicated Internet connection to allow constant monitoring of suspects, additional computers and forensic software.

In February and May, Bledsoe attended five weeks of computer forensic training classes in California and Florida offered by the International Association of Computer Investigation Specialists. He said he learned how to recover data from e-mail accounts, cell phones and computer hard drives for use in criminal investigations. A 2007 Internet Cyber Crime grant paid for the training.

"The training has been very beneficial," Bledsoe said. "I'm still getting my feet wet, but I have several cases pending where I've been able to use what I learned."

Tammy Gwaltney, director of the Southeast Missouri Network Against Sexual Violence, said the grant funding will improve investigation of Internet crimes against children in the area.

"We're happy to see money given to these organizations who we collaborate with frequently," Gwaltney said.

Gwaltney said the grants will identify more victims of Internet crime, but she would like to see additional funding for child advocacy groups that serve the victims.

"While our caseload is constantly increasing because of the additional enforcement, there is not more money budgeted by the state for the treatment of the victims," Gwaltney said.

The Missouri Department of Public Safety administered the grants after a competitive application process.

The funds are distributed to law enforcement agencies through their city or county governments and can be used for online investigator salaries, training expenses and equipment and supplies purchases for cyber crime task forces.

pwylie@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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