In a small town in Idaho, a community is making enormous strides in the fight against trafficking.
The Rupert Idaho Police Department and its undercover team are a formidable force in finding and arresting trafficking and exploitation predators. The Rupert PD assists in collecting evidence and identifying predators around the country, and even around the world.
When the department learned of how rampant online exploitation ran in their area and around the country, they had a vision to stop the predators in their tracks.
O.U.R. is proud to say we have supported the Rupert Police Department with training, computer equipment, an Electronic Storage K9 and a K9 vehicle.
Sergeant Sam Kuoha, an undercover officer, shared how the department became such a successful investigative unit in the fight against internet crimes against children.
“I've been doing this since 2013. The first predator was by accident when I was working on a gang case. I was tracking gang members with a fake profile online when a predator actually inserted himself into the conversation. That is literally all it takes.”
Once Sgt. Kuoha realized how common these sorts of crimes and online enticement were, even in his small jurisdiction, he and his team were determined to teach the predators a lesson.
“That's what our whole target was from the very beginning. To tell these predators and pedophiles you're on notice with us. We will come and find you.”
Sgt. Kuoha has become an expert undercover operator. He works in tandem with Officer Travis Freeman who handles electronic storage detection K9 Newton to successfully identify and arrest predators.
They understand how online predators entice their victims. Sgt. Kuoha poses as underage kids online to identify predators, while Officer Freeman aids in the investigation once predators have been identified.
We sat down with Officer Freeman and Sgt Kuoha to talk about how online enticement works and how they are fighting it.
O.U.R.: How does online enticement happen?
Officer Freeman: In a lot of cases, it is like online phishing schemes. These predators will be online, and they are going on a phishing expedition. So, they identify different profiles of kids that they ‘like.’ And then they might send a message or something like that. They are looking for particular vulnerabilities that they can exploit, same as a phishing scam: kids that are neglected, kids that are left alone for prolonged periods of time, and kids without really strong familial ties and things like that. They are looking for kids who are looking for somebody to be friends with.”
O.U.R.: How does it go from a simple DM into exploitation?
Sgt Kuoha: Once they find a target, they start moving towards a lengthy grooming process immediately. They start to test the waters: how willing is the child willing to talk about sex? And then they start throwing out the idea of, ‘I'd really like to meet up with you.’ ‘I really want to engage in these activities with you.’
Officer Freeman: Does the child have other social media accounts? Is the child willing to send nude photographs? Is the child willing to talk to me on Snapchat Live or Facebook Live or some other platform? Now they are starting to test the waters more with, you know, phone calls. They want to make sure that counters that they say are live images, videos, stuff like that. And so, once they discover that the child is alive after the grooming process has already begun. And the process can be pretty fast.
O.U.R.: Have you noticed predators targeting a specific age group among minors?
Sgt Kuoha: As an undercover officer, it is hard for me to pose as anyone younger than 12(just for the mere fact that we fall under certain standards and guidelines when we operate). However, I do know of cases that have been younger, where children have been younger, where they have been enticed at you know, eight, nine, ten years old.
O.U.R.: How quickly does enticement begin?
When I am working on a profile, sometimes I will get on a new application, maybe Instagram or something like that. Once my profile is built, it literally only takes me just a few minutes or seconds even for a predator to start reaching out to me. As soon as they see that a new profile is up, they want to know if it has potential. They're curious. So, they will ask, “hey, how are you?” “What's your name?”
It is very evident within just a matter of seconds once they start communicating, and they start communicating it within a matter of about 5 minutes. I know what their intent is. If they are actually looking for a friendship or if they are trying to exploit a child.
Officer Freeman: What we're finding in today's world is that they know law enforcement is out there. But they also know that they are a hundred times more likely to encounter a child than a law enforcement officer. So, because law enforcement out there and technologies enable them to do certain things, they’re using the technology to make sure they are talking to actual kids. If they are, for lack of a better word, a professional predator, they're going to go through a whole process to try and verify it’s a child.
O.U.R.: How does the process work once you have a target?
Sgt Kuoha: I could be talking to 15 or 20 guys or predators, male or female, and I have to pick and choose which ones I can focus on. Once I pick one out, I'll go say, hey, Officer Freeman, I need you to work this target. Here is all the information that I've been able to gather so far. Now, you go find out who this person is. And then he starts writing his search warrants and doing all his analysis to find out who and where the target is. Meanwhile, I will continue to talk to the target.
Officer Freeman: We have to get to a certain point where the predator has, as we call it ‘crossed the threshold.’ They've crossed over the threshold into evidence. They can go from what is an innocuous and fairly innocent conversation where they are not discussing anything sexual or pictures or anything like that. But once they crossed into something inappropriate, asking for nudes or sent nudes or asking to have sex with the undercover persona.
So, at that point Sgt Kuoha will pass on the evidence to me. The chat logs, the internet service provider (ISP) records, things of that nature. Then I start putting together subpoenas and search warrants. It can go relatively quickly. We have to get them typed out and signed by a judge and sent off to whatever Internet service provider we're looking at. We ask them, who does this IP address belong to?
O.U.R.: So, you two work hand in hand?
Sgt Kuoha: There's only two of us, but Officer Freeman and I work extremely well together as a team, and that's critical in what we do.
O.U.R.: Can you tell us a story about your undercover work?
Officer Freeman: Once, Sgt Kuoha was carrying on a conversation and the predator crossed the threshold. I In analyzing it, we found out that this guy was using VPNs (virtual private networks). For all intents and purposes, these are impossible to track because they redirect the signals from Great Britain and being routed through Central America.
But this violator made a mistake. On one occasion, he logged into the chat application he was using to entice someone on his phone. He must've been away from his house or something like that. So, he wasn't protected by a VPN. With that one mistake, I was able to determine who his actual service provider was, reach out to them and get his and find out who this guy was. And it was a seventy-something-year-old guy, that was talking to the victim.
Once we got that information back, I sent out a search warrant to my Google accounts and things like that. We got all of the information, down to exactly what apartment he was in, the town that he lives in, the state. And pictures of him, all that stuff.
What challenges does your unit face?
Sgt Kuoha: We do all our own analytics. We are a town of about 6000 and a department of 12 sworn officers with two detectives. And we cover everything. We are one of the few agencies in the state of Idaho that works on internet crimes against children. And we are one of even fewer that have an undercover officer that works online. So, with all those dynamics working together, it makes it so we have to spread out.
Plus, we’re cops. We can’t be online all the time. We work on schedules. We're working 40 hours a week. We're mandated by the time clock, but kids aren't. They aren’t on social media at the cost of a business. They're always on their phone. That makes it difficult to be a believable undercover operator.
O.U.R.: What advice do you have for concerned parents?
Officer Freeman: Be a parent, you know. Take your kid's device, look at their accounts. Don’t let them have secure folders or passwords that you don't know. Like you should know every password and every device that your child owns. Kids should have some autonomy, yes. But it's also your responsibility to make sure they're safe, right?
Sgt Kuoha: Periodically, you should be checking their system. They should be checking their social media platform. And you should know how those social media platforms work.
To learn how you can support law enforcement officers like this, visit our Fill A Need site at https://my.ourrescue.org/fill-a-need.