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Cybercrime a rural problem too: Olivia Police Officer trained to track down cybercriminals, use social media

Olivia Police Officer Michelle Jensen is among officers trained to assist the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension as a member of its Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. The training in tracking down cybercrime has also helped show her how social media can benefit local law enforcement by getting the word out about crime and making it easier for citizens to offer tips and help police in their work. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

OLIVIA — With 17 years of experience as a licensed officer with the Olivia Police Department, Michelle Jensen knows that rural cops deal with all the bad crimes that their urban counterparts see.

“Just not all at once,’’ she said.

Now, she’s learning that even that difference is disappearing.

Officer Jensen is an investigator with the Crimes Against Children Task Force led by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. She and about 100 other officers around the state are trained to track down cybercrime.

That training was critical when Jensen played the role of a 13-year-old girl on a social media chat room. A Brown County man in his mid-20s pretended to be a 19-year-old.

He made no secret of his desire for an encounter with the juvenile he believed was responding to his messages. It wasn’t long before he was sending nude photos of himself.

He learned the identity of his would-be victim when he was successfully prosecuted.

The scary part, Jensen discovered, is just how easy it is for these things to happen, “It’s all out there,’’ she said.

Girls ages 13 to 15 are most often the victims of sexual predators, but not exclusively. About 25 percent of the victims are boys, Jensen said.  

Rural residents are just as often the target as urbanites, whether it is scam artists preying on the elderly or sexual predators seeking children. It’s why Jensen and others are doing their best to let people in their rural communities know what to watch for, and how they can avoid becoming a victim.

Jensen knows of area residents who fell victim to a scam in which they sent money overseas, believing they were helping out a relative in a jam.

While these stories get plenty of attention, the more prevalent problem is cyberbullying. She said adolescent-aged boys and girls are most often the victims of cyberbullying, and often the perpetrators as well.

She speaks to students in local schools and tells them not to become bullies.

Social media make it easier for kids to group up on somebody, she said, and that person is not there to defend themselves.

“You can say a lot of mean things in a short amount of time when you are talking to your screen, as opposed to in person,’’ Jensen said.

Jensen said would-be victims could take the relatively simple action of adjusting computer settings to block mean-spirited dialogue or inappropriate material. But, she added, kids should not hesitate to report abuse.

If the bullying is malicious or threatening, save the material and report it to police, Jensen said.

She constantly reminds young people that anything they place on the Internet is there for the world to see. Images and texts sent with apps that cause them to disappear from a screen in a few seconds don’t really vanish. They remain and can be retrieved by computer geeks with the right know-how.  

If she knows its dangers, her training has also shown Jensen the value of the Internet. She’s working to take advantage of this tool.

The Olivia Police Department is among a growing number of rural departments using Facebook, Twitter and other social media to communicate with the public. When a string of thefts from parked vehicles was reported in the community, the department used Facebook to alert residents. Word got out quickly and people started locking their vehicles.

The department’s Facebook page has also helped open a dialogue with people in the community. It’s an easy way to communicate, leave a message or a tip, and it can be done privately, she noted.

The department has also used the site to promote some humor and build rapport with the community. A Christmas-time post of a smiling Santa Claus with the message “He sees you when you’re drinking, he knows when you’re .08’’ nearly went viral, with more than 10,000 views.

Jensen said the Internet is constantly evolving, and it’s always a job of playing catch up. Law enforcement officers are becoming more educated about its use, but so too are the bad guys, she said.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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