The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children fields 29 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation each year. That’s 563,461 each week.
Front Royal Police Detective Marc Ramey is doing his part to get child predators off the streets — or from behind their computers — and into jail.
“We have always conducted online chat cases if a complaint from a school, parent or guardian was made to our agency regarding their child or student. Proactive online chat cases began in March of 2022,” Ramey said last week, noting that the Front Royal law enforcement agency is an active member of the Northern Virginia/DC Metro Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force, which is coordinated by the Virginia State Police.
Since last March, the department has arrested 19 people across the state for offenses involving online solicitation of minors or child sexual abuse material, including six who traveled to Front Royal to meet “with lascivious intent” with what they thought were children under the age of 15.
Ramey, who has been with FRPD since 2007, said that he became more aware of the depth and scope of the dangers associated with internet use and how it is used in the child pornography industry following a 2019 case. That case, which was an investigation into the manufacturing of child pornography in Front Royal, led him to learn more about the work of the ICAC task force.
“I didn’t realize what an enormous problem these types of crimes were until I actually began conducting these types of investigations,” he said, noting that he joined the task force in 2021 and received training on how to conduct undercover online cases early last year. He’s taken several other courses since then and traveled widely throughout the state and beyond to apprehend offenders. Since he started proactive chatting, Ramey’s work has led to about 30 felony charges.
“People ask me what type of people they are. I’ve arrested all types of people. I’ve arrested homeless people and federal employees. There’s no rhyme or reason. There’s no stereotype,” he said.
Using a variety of online platforms, Ramey poses as a young person, usually between 12 and 14 years of age. He enters chat rooms for people from the area and might not say anything. Sometimes he’ll make a comment that lets others know the age of his “persona.”
“They know from the jump how old I am. I’ve arrested people who are 21 and people who are in their 60s and everywhere in between. It’s not like it’s an accident or that they thought she was older than what she said,” he said.
For instance, Ramey might go onto Facebook, Snapchat, or an app like Whisper and post as a female high school freshman who has had a bad day. The responses come flooding in.
While many are innocuous or from other teens, there are plenty of inappropriate responses from adults. If they continue the conversation thinking Ramey is a 14-year-old girl and begin to talk sexually or ask for photos or inappropriate acts, they’ve broken the law. He said there is an enhanced penalty if the suspect is seven years or older than the child.
Being able to communicate effectively as a young teen takes work for the 36-year-old Ramey.
“It’s not an 8 to 4 job. When I’m online chatting with an individual it’s almost a constant communication with them like a young person would normally do,” he said, adding that he tries to stay up to date on the latest lingo and even the apps that kids use, all of which change frequently.
Ramey said that time spent chatting with individuals varies case by case, but often takes about a month of chatting to gather data to track them down.
“Normally, that gives me enough time to conduct the investigation, get the legal paperwork done and then be able to determine where they live, who they are, that type of thing. They’re not texting me from their actual phone number or actual screen name. That month gives me time to get the paperwork out to whatever entity they’re using,” he said. “Our analyst [Jessica Racer] is super helpful, I couldn’t do what I do without her. It’s a team effort. It’s our job to make sure that those who are most vulnerable aren’t preyed upon by criminals.”
He said that law enforcement works with whatever app or platform the suspect is using to track them down.
“Some apps are really good about holding content and others are really bad about holding content. I don’t really know what different apps, what their intentions are,” he said. “Some of them are really law enforcement friendly. Some of them are not even in America and don’t answer to law enforcement. It does become difficult if they’re outside the U.S.”
Ramey said that every photo or solicitation can be an additional charge and, if the suspect comes to meet the child, they can be charged with attempting to take indecent liberties with a child.
He said that his department has a good working relationship with Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney John Bell who “has been great with prosecuting these cases. These people are getting hefty punishments.”
Along with proactive chatting, Ramey investigates cyber tips.
He said that many people don’t realize that if they send child sexual abuse material across Snapchat or YouTube, “they flag it and sent it to police in that locality. If you’re 12 years old and talking to your boyfriend at night and you send a picture of yourself that looks like child porn, it’s coming to me and I’m going to investigate. That takes up a lot of time also,” Ramey said. “The internet is not just a free for all like it used to be. There actually are steps in place with all these internet service providers to stop the flow of child pornography. It’s super technical.
A lot of people get caught like that. That box you carry around in your pocket will tell on you.”
Child pornography, he said, is a billion dollar a year industry.
He also investigates cases brought to him by parents, though he says those are less common.
“Most of the time, kids are scared to tell. They’re scared to tell their parents because they don’t want to have their phone taken away. They don’t want to be embarrassed or for their parents to know that they may have actually sent a photograph of themselves.”
In an effort to better educate parents about the potential online dangers to their kids, Ramey began offering a class, “What Parents Need to Know About Internet Safety” this fall and plans to offer it again at 6 p.m. Dec. 13 at the Front Royal Police Department. The event is free, but space is limited.
“Christmastime is a big time for new kids to get new technology. They get to be a certain age and they’re getting a phone or a tablet for Christmas,” he said, adding that the class offers parents some insight into the apps that are out there, ways to protect their children, and what to do if they think they’re being exploited.
“Some parents just don’t know. If you grow up in a world without technology, you don’t know how to do those parental controls. You don’t know how to work your phone, much less their phone. You have to teach them how to use it because if you don’t, they fall into the rabbit hole of nonsense and before you know it, someone is extorting them,” he said. “We have to learn how to be that barrier.”
While the work is challenging, Ramey said that being a parent himself makes it that much more important to him.
“Children are vulnerable,” he said. “They don’t know the dangers of the world. It’s not just me, every one of these guys that are in here help me tremendously. I’m at the forefront chatting, but these guys go with me. It’s our job as law enforcement to protect them and that’s basically why we all do what we do. They’ve all been involved. When (suspects) come to meet, we’re all there.”