Protecting children relies on ‘TV magic’ for Jefferson County’s CHEEZO

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GOLDEN, Colo. -- Protecting kids from online predators is a full-time job for a group of investigators with the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office. But to track down the bad guys, they have to keep up with the times and get creative.

The team recently started using a bit of TV magic to give it an edge over the suspects.

“When I talk to kids I tell them, everywhere you go, so do predators,” said Mike Harris, who leads the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Child Sex Offender Internet Investigations known as CHEEZO.

When the unit is not visiting local schools to teach kids about internet safety, it is working undercover to catch suspected predators.

“We go into all areas of tech and use the tech the same way the predators are using it to lure our children,” Harris said.

In 1996, when Harris started the team, it was simple to hide behind a screen and pretend to be a young boy or girl. But now new technology is upping the ante; the latest challenge is video chat.

“Everyone wanted to Skype. Everyone wanted to Facetime. So I had to become innovative and figure out how we are going to do that,” Harris said.

That led the team to adopt its newest crime fighting tool -- a green screen. Taking down online child sex offenders has turned into a production.

As Harris said, his office turns into a TV studio. The unit’s undercover female stands in front of a green screen set up in the office. Using high-resolution images, Harris is able to change her background and convince predators she is at different locations like a local high school or even her own bedroom.

According to Harris, the team’s undercover female is actually 18 but looks and pretends to be 12 or 13.

The decoy keeps the act going until investigators get what they need to make an arrest. That could be in one of several ways, including if they send an inappropriate picture of their body or they ask someone who is younger than 18 for their naked picture.

Harris said so far the green screen approach is working and is helping put suspected predators behind bars. But he knows it’s only a matter of time before he has to change his strategy again.

“If we don’t keep up with technology, it’s going to pass us by and they will move on have ways of contacting kids.,” Harris said.

He added one of the biggest things parents can do to protect their kids from online predators is to constantly monitor their activity online.

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