Parents long have heeded warnings about Internet predators, but one form of technology that's moved online is providing some virtual offenders another way to hunt victims and perpetrate crimes.
Video game systems that allow players to connect with other users via the Internet -- like Xbox Live and Playstation Network -- have grown increasingly popular. But with that shift has come the additional risk that predators and other online offenders will employ the game systems for criminal activity, according to authorities in Iowa and in the Eastern Iowa corridor.
Iowa City police, for example, are investigating several crimes involving video game systems. Because the cases remain open, Lt. Doug Hart said he can't comment on the specifics. But, he said, the investigations involve players using the web-based portions of the game systems to conspire about criminal activities outside the virtual realm.
"It's just a way of conspiring or discussing something," Hart said. "It's not any different than any other electronic communication."
And electronic communication is booming these days in its ease of access and variety of vehicles. Not only are things like video games now available online, but they can be accessed using mobile phones and tablets any time from any location.
Iowa City's video game -related cases emerged in the last seven months, although state authorities say they've been battling crime in the online gaming community for several years. Hart said Iowa City's cases have made local law enforcement more aware of the technology as a potential tool for perpetrators.
"It's something that we will be looking for," he said. "At the investigation level, officers are aware that it's out there and is possibly a place to look for evidence in a crime."
Now, should a case hint at the chance a video game system was involved or used, Hart said, investigators will seize those devices during a search, just like they would a laptop or cell phone.
Special Agent Nate Teigland, with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation's Cyber Crimes Unit, said his officers have seen game system-related crime in the form of conspiracy, harassment, solicitation and predator investigations.
"If it appears that a (video game) device is related to an investigation and we have probable cause to seize it, then we definitely will," Teigland said.
Challenged by 'emerging technologies'
Most of the online gaming crimes that Teigland said his office investigates involve virtual predators like those who contact minors in chat rooms or on social networking sites. By using an online game system, a predator can more easily hide his or her identity by using an "avatar" to befriend a young player.
"Child predators know that there are certainly an amount of pre-adolescent children playing these games," he said. "And, just like on social networking sites, they know that if they gather where these kids are, they have the chance to communicate and make contact with them."
The issue has become a concern nationally, and in December, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced that more than 2,100 accounts of registered sex offenders had been purged from online gaming platforms as part of his "Operation Game Over." The initiative aims to protect children from predators in online gaming networks.
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