- Associated Press - Sunday, March 1, 2015

MERIDEN, Conn. (AP) - There is seemingly no safe place for children on the Internet. Even the most innocent computer game can be used to entice children, according to state police Sgt. Kevin Albanese, who heads up computer crime investigations at the state’s Forensic Science Laboratory.

A team of seven state police investigators and a group of civilians are charged with investigating cyber crime throughout the state. The Forensic Science Laboratory also investigates major crimes, such as murder and arson.

The computer crime division is part of the nationwide Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. There are 44 towns in the state participating, including Meriden. The division handles cases of online harassment, email threats, child pornography, child enticement, scams and hacks.

Cases come to the laboratory through local police or national law enforcement. Internet service providers have also started to report suspicious activity. For example, Facebook monitors for child pornography or other potential criminal behavior, Albanese said.

With ever-evolving technology, police investigators and civilian examiners are constantly training on the latest trends. But the easiest way to protect a child is to monitor them, Albanese said.

“There needs to be parental restriction and involvement,” he said.

There are about 500 social media applications, some harder to monitor than others. In many chat applications, the user can remain anonymous. The use of cell phones has made cyber crimes harder to track, Albanese said.

Meriden police Lt. Sal Nesci said in a recent case a father noticed his daughter involved in an inappropriate conversation on a phone chat application. He called police, but the conversation automatically deleted, so there was no evidence, Nesci said.

One of the most important tools the crime lab employs is located inside a small, unassuming room. There are two desktop computers, and two small tablet-like devices. Investigators can hook cell phones into the devices and extract data for evidence in criminal cases, according to Albanese. Five years ago, these devices were barely used, he added. “Now we use them constantly.”

The growth of social media allows people “to start instant relationships with people they’re preying on,” he added. Using data that’s available to the average citizen, the crime lab monitors social media to look for leads in criminal investigations.

Social media also allows police more access to possible leads. Recently, a person reported to Meriden police that someone they were chatting with online said they had stabbed someone to death. Nothing came from the complaint.

But with more information available, “the more we have to weed through,” said Lucinda Lopes-Phelan, deputy director of identification at the state crime lab.

Just as in the Dateline NBC series “To Catch a Predator,” investigators at the crime lab set up sting operations. But care has to be taken not to entrap suspects. Investigators take part in online chats, but cannot entice predators themselves. They must let the predators come to them, Albanese said.

Local police often train with investigators at the crime lab, and several officers from Meriden have some background in cyber crime.

Meriden police Detective Mike Siegler heads the department’s computer crime section. Siegler is normally assigned cases, but has taken time off due to health issues, said Detective Lt. Mark Walerysiak. “The final product is not as much as it would be if we had a healthy guy in there,” he said.

Computer crime in the city has been relatively steady in recent years, Walerysiak said. “It was growing in the past. Now it’s a mainstay. I think you’ll see more medium to large-sized police departments have a dedicated unit to cyber crime.”

In the past, Walerysiak has attempted to host parent forums in the city to spread information about computer crime, but the turnout was low.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “I could count on one hand the parents that showed up.”

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