Video game systems that allow players to connect with other users via the Internet – like Xbox Live and Playstation Network – have grown increasingly popular. But with that shift has come the additional risk that predators and other online offenders will employ the game systems for criminal activity, according to authorities in Iowa and in the Eastern Iowa corridor.
Iowa City police, for example, are investigating several crimes involving video game systems. Because the cases remain open, Lt. Doug Hart said he can’t comment on the specifics. But, he said, the investigations involve players using the web-based portions of the game systems to conspire about criminal activities outside the virtual realm.
“It’s just a way of conspiring or discussing something," Hart said. “It’s not any different than any other electronic communication."
And electronic communication is booming these days in its ease of access and variety of vehicles. Not only are things like video games now available online, but they can be accessed using mobile phones and tablets any time from any location.
Iowa City’s video game -related cases emerged in the last seven months, although state authorities say they’ve been battling crime in the online gaming community for several years. Hart said Iowa City’s cases have made local law enforcement more aware of the technology as a potential tool for perpetrators.
“It’s something that we will be looking for,” he said. “At the investigation level, officers are aware that it’s out there and is possibly a place to look for evidence in a crime.”
Now, should a case hint at the chance a video game system was involved or used, Hart said, investigators will seize those devices during a search, just like they would a laptop or cell phone.
Special Agent Nate Teigland, with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation’s Cyber Crimes Unit, said his officers have seen game system-related crime in the form of conspiracy, harassment, solicitation and predator investigations.
“If it appears that a (video game) device is related to an investigation and we have probable cause to seize it, then we definitely will,” Teigland said.
Challenged by ‘emerging technologies’
Most of the online gaming crimes that Teigland said his office investigates involve virtual predators like those who contact minors in chat rooms or on social networking sites. By using an online game system, a predator can more easily hide his or her identity by using an “avatar” to befriend a young player.
“Child predators know that there are certainly an amount of pre-adolescent children playing these games,” he said. “And, just like on social networking sites, they know that if they gather where these kids are, they have the chance to communicate and make contact with them.”
The issue has become a concern nationally, and in December, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced that more than 2,100 accounts of registered sex offenders had been purged from online gaming platforms as part of his "Operation Game Over." The initiative aims to protect children from predators in online gaming networks.
Teigland said his office also has seen virtual game systems abused in identification theft, harassment and criminal conspiracies.
“Sometimes people conspire at a shady bar, but they also can conspire in the virtual world,” he said. “That is becoming more common with more and more of these systems becoming mainstreamed.”
DCI investigators can analyze data stored in video game systems just like they can pull text messages off cellular phones or review Internet search histories on laptops, Teigland said. Developing the awareness that they should, however, is part of the challenge of battling cyber crime in today’s fast-changing world, he said.
“I would say the biggest challenge to law enforcement is the rise of a lot of different types of emerging technologies,” according to Teigland. “The biggest one, and the one that is evolving the fastest, is mobile device technology.”
New devices hit the market daily, and criminals are using them just as fast, Teigland said.
“This is a unique field in law enforcement because it changes so often, and we have to constantly keep up with the emerging technology and think about what the criminals are going to use next,” he said. “That includes gaming systems and all the different devices we deal with. These devices and computers and game systems can be used in any type of criminal activity you can imagine.”
Sgt. James Roberts, senior detective with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, said investigators were concerned about the risks posed to young users as soon as video game networks emerged online.
“Typical of any new device, it doesn’t take the bad guys long to figure out how to use it in their activity,” Roberts said.
His office now addresses game systems in its forensic training and typically confiscates gaming devices during investigative searches.
“Unless I have specific knowledge that limits the scope of the search to one particular thing, I always name those devices as items we would want to take,” he said. “If I go into a home to search for child porn, and they have gaming devices, those will be seized.”
Roberts said his advice for parents includes not allowing children to play unsupervised for long periods of time, keeping game systems out of bedrooms, and making sure they have complete access to the system.
“(Children) shouldn’t have it password protected,” Roberts said.
Limiting time on the device also is helpful, Roberts said, considering that the more children use a game system, the better chance they have of being victimized.
“If you are immersed in a game, you might not critically consider that the person could be a bad guy,” Roberts said. “It could be an adult looking to cultivate a relationship with a child.”
In his experience studying the dangers of online predators, Notre Dame University professor Chad Harms said he’s seen video game systems fly under parental radars.
“Parents assume it’s a more safe space,” said Harms, who was an Iowa State University professor for seven years before moving to Notre Dame in 2010. “They think (their children) are just playing a video game and are focused on the game. But that might not be the goal of the people interacting with them.”
Harms said users and parents should not only be concerned about pedophiles and sexual predators but other types of criminal solicitations and harassment.
“The majority of the negative will come in the form of people trying to solicit information from people in an attempt to profit from that,” Harms said. “They will be trying to get secure information or credit card numbers.”
Harms, who studied this issue in Iowa and worked with law enforcement agencies, said that even though it was early in the criminal abuse of online gaming, cases already were popping up. And, Harms said, he believes the issue will not soon fade as the virtual video game audience continues to swell.
“As that population grows, it becomes more of a concern,” he said.