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Websites enable sexual predators, Florida sheriff's department says

By Rich Phillips, CNN Senior Producer
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd says certain Internet sites take insufficient security measures to prevent sexual predators.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd says certain Internet sites take insufficient security measures to prevent sexual predators.
  • Security measures are weak, Polk County sheriff says
  • 22 men from at least 4 states arrested in Florida
  • Men believed they were about to have sex with minor
  • Internet
  • Florida
  • Computer Crime
  • Crime

Miami (CNN) -- A Florida sheriff who just arrested 22 men caught in an online undercover operation blames the policies of the Internet sites used by sexual predators.

The investigation, dubbed Operation Last House Call, conducted by the Polk County Sheriff's Office, netted 22 men, including a Navy sailor, a software technician with top-secret clearance and a National Guardsman. The sheriff's office says all the men answered online ads placed by undercover detectives.

"These men showed up to our undercover location with gifts and clothing for children, along with condoms and sex toys they planned on using when having sex with the children," said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.

And while Internet sites claim to have security features in place to combat this type of behavior, Judd tells CNN their security measures are insufficient.

"I wonder if the CEO of one of these mega-companies would have the same attitude if these people were preying on their own children. It's all about money," he said.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children works with many of the electronic service providers, including Internet providers and photo storage sites.

The center tells CNN that if the Internet sites become aware of child pornography or exploitation on their systems, they are required, by federal law, to report it to law enforcement via the cybertip line, which is operated by the center.

From there, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children refers the call to the appropriate law enforcement agency.

"If they become aware of it, they are required to report it, but it doesn't require them to take additional steps," said Michelle Collins, the vice president of the Exploited Children's Division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "There's no requirement for them to monitor or look for child pornography," she said.

However, Collins said, the technological explosion has made companies more proactive.

"Companies are being challenged to think of new and more creative ways to reduce the victimization of children on their services," she told CNN.

"There's a lot of progress over the past 10 years ... but much more needs to be done," she said.

One of those apprehended in Florida was a Navy sailor from Virginia Beach, Virginia, who allegedly came to an undercover location to teach a woman's 11-year-old daughter to have sex in a "coming of age ceremony."

Another man, from Germantown, Maryland, is a software technician with top-secret clearance for a U.S. government contractor. According to the Sheriff's Office, this man allegedly responded to a fictitious ad hoping to have sex with what he thought was a man's 10-year-old stepdaughter.

"We saw men soliciting our undercover detectives to have sex with children within minutes of initiating online chats with them. Their behavior is despicable," Judd said.

The operation took place between April 18 and Sunday. Four of the suspects traveled to Florida from Maryland, Virginia, Texas and Missouri.

One man, an 18-year-old who allegedly thought he was going to meet a 13-year-old girl was being handcuffed Saturday when he allegedly told detectives, "My mom's gonna kill me ... and tomorrow's Mother's Day."

The Sheriff's Office says that after suspects answered their ads, they then continued their dialogue via email, online chats and text messages. The suspects agreed to come to Polk County to an undercover location, when they were arrested.

Judd says their behavior is horrible, but so is that of the companies, which enable predators to hunt down kids.

"They either don't care or are in total denial, and that really concerns me," Judd said.

"It tells me that they have no moral bounds or moral responsibility or are concerned about kids."