An inside look at tracking down online child predators in the Houston area

HOUSTON – Every day, thousands of people offer to share images of child pornography online from what they believe are secure sites. While law enforcement has made great strides in finding who is sharing these images, the numbers are overwhelmingly in favor of the bad guys.

Members of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office’s High Tech Crime Unit gave us a glimpse inside the daily hunt for these predators.

“There's more of them than there are of us who are trained to do this kind of investigation,” Gary Spurger, manager of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office’s High Tech Crime Unit, said. “It’s a huge problem.”

“In our area, how prevalent is the sharing of child pornography?” KPRC investigative reporter Robert Arnold asked Spurger.

“It's around 11,000 to 12,000 in a 30-day window, just in the Greater Houston area,” Spurger said.

“Pictures or people?” Arnold asked.

“People,” said Spurger. “Well, only on one network.”

“How many networks are you monitoring?” Arnold asked.

“There's seven or eight,” Spurger said. “You could extrapolate there's 25,000 to 30,000 people sharing at any given time in a 30-day window in Harris County.”

To that point, Spurger showed us a map on his computer pinpointing physical locations of a dozen IP addresses  believed to be sharing child pornography.

“That was in the four hours since I got to work this morning,” Spurger said. “Again, this is just one network.”

When Spurger expanded the map to show the United States, red dots were popping up nonstop on the screen. Images online have a unique mathematical value called a hash value. When an image of child pornography is found, that image’s hash value is entered into a national database shared by law enforcement. Investigators then scour the web using specialized programs designed to search for these known hash values, as well as other telltale signs someone is sharing child pornography.

“We're not looking at people downloading files because we can't see that. What we can see is people making it available for share,” Spurger said.

Spurger said since a single image of child pornography can be shared thousands of times, these specialized programs are effective at helping uncover caches of child pornography not seen before by law enforcement.

“We'll go through 100,000 images, and we might have seen 10,” Spurger said.

Spurger said the only drawback is if a person changes so much as a single pixel, then an image’s hash value is radically altered and may get missed by law enforcement. Spurger said the prevalence of child pornography forces the department to prioritize cases. Spurger said investigators look for those IP addresses with large volumes of images being shared, those close to schools or those in homes where children live.

Sheriff’s officials took KPRC 2 on a raid of a home in the Katy area earlier this week. Sgt. Christopher Garza said an IP address at the home showed at least 300 images of child pornography were available for sharing. Garza said investigators obtained two of those images and verified the pictures were child pornography. Garza said that was enough to get a search warrant, but not to file criminal charges.

“All we have is evidence a crime was being committed from an electronic device at this residence. We do not know who was committing the crime,” Garza said.

That comment highlights the other challenge law enforcement has in seeing charges filed. Garza said many homes now have multiple devices and law enforcement has to be able to prove a specific person was using a specific device at the time child pornography was shared or stored.

As for the Katy raid, Garza said no one in the home confessed to downloading the images. Investigators seized all electronic devices, including two hard drives stored in a lockbox. Those devices will be forensically searched as investigators work to build a criminal case.

“It'll be three or four months after our initial search,” Garza said in reference to criminal charges being filed.

Spurger said the sources of child pornography range from commercial production in the U.S. and overseas to family members victimizing relatives -- each image shared hundreds if not thousands of times.

“We also have children, unfortunately, who are making their own child porn and not realizing it,” Spurger said.

Spurger said this can entail a minor snapping a nude photo of themselves to send to a boyfriend or girlfriend.

“It hits one school, next thing you know, it's across five or six schools,” Spurger said. “Now that one image has been replicated 1,000 times. There's nothing worse than looking at a parent and the parent is telling you, 'Can you get this off the internet?' And you have to look at the parent and tell them, 'No, there's no coming back.’”

In addition to warning your kids about the dangers and permanency of this behavior, Garza said parents must closely watch whom kids chat with online because that can lead to another source of child pornography.

“Majority through social media applications. We've seen some through games that have chat functions,” Garza said.

Garza said a child can be coerced into sending a single racy photo of themselves to someone they think they can trust, only to have that single photo used as blackmail.

“'Well, if you don't send me more, I'm going to tell your parents what you are doing,'” Garza said is a common threat.

Investigators said collecting child pornography is usually a precursor to a child being sexually assaulted in the real world.

“They have a curiosity for children. They just haven't built up the nerve to engage in touching or they haven't been successful in soliciting a child,” Garza said. “It's a quick fix. It can settle their needs because they are unable to get access to an actual live child.”

The Sheriff’s Office is one of the original members of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which is a nationwide network of state, federal and local law enforcement agencies cracking down on child exploitation. If you suspect a child is being exploited online, you can report it to your local law enforcement agency or by following this link.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office also provides several tips on better safeguarding your child against online threats. That information can be found here.