Tuesday , 7 February 2023
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State bill targets Internet child predators by increasing funding

A bill to increase funding to target Internet child predators got a boost Thursday when state lawmakers, law officers and Attorney General Alan Wilson appeared with a young woman who told her story about being kidnapped by a cyber predator.

“I’m a survivor,” said national Internet child safety activist Alicia Kozakiewicz in a news conference to publicize the bill in the Statehouse lobby.

In 2002, when she was 13, “I was a shy, quiet kid, a kid who maybe didn’t speak up in class, a kid like many of you know — or maybe your own kid — and I got on line to talk to my friends at school, who introduced me to their friends,” Kozakiewicz, now 27, said.

“I felt so safe. I was in my house. My mom was there. My dad was there. My dog was there. ‘What could ever happen to me here?’ ” she said. “I also come from a family that these things just don’t happen to.”

Online, she met someone who began to groom her, and “on New Year’s Day 2002, I walked out of the front door to meet somebody I thought was my friend, and he abducted me, and took me from my Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, home to Virginia.”

There, she was held captive in a secret room in a predator’s basement, chained up and raped and tortured while her captor streamed live images of her on the Internet on a webcam.

“My rescue was nothing short of a miracle,” she said. Someone who saw her image broadcast on the Internet recognized her from a wanted poster, notified law enforcement, and they tracked down the predator’s Internet address.

“These law enforcement officers are my angels. They gave me a second chance at life. But I’m not the only one,” she said as she urged passage of the bill.

Wilson underscored Kozakiewicz’s message.

“I tell students all the time, ‘Don’t think you are beyond being preyed upon,’ ” said Wilson, whose office maintains a child Internet task force that partners with 80-plus law agencies in 45 counties to locate and prosecute predators.

Wilson called the Internet a predators’ “New Frontier,” a virtual world that any child, even a very young one, can access with a laptop, cell phone or tablet.

“Rapists and pedophiles and predators are roaming free on the New Frontier,” Wilson said. Parents need to check on what their kids do on line, he said. “Don’t feel safe because you are looking through a screen.”

A year and a half ago, a California man met a Lexington County teen on a social media site, groomed the child and came to the child’s house, where he began to live in a closet unbeknownst to the parents, Wilson said.

Since 2005, there have been 603 arrests in South Carolina and 417 convictions for Internet-related crimes against children, Wilson said. Since last July, there have been 87 such arrests, he said.

Many cases involve child pornography on someone’s computer, he said. But about one-third of the cases his office prosecutes involve an “actual live child who is being groomed, being prepared for some type of criminal activity,” Wilson said.

“We have got to be as vigilant patrolling the Internet as we are the streets of our communities and the hallways of our schools,” Wilson said.

The bill, H. 4763, would would for the first time generate a dedicated and continuing source of money for the “prosecution, detection and, ultimately, rescue of Internet crimes against children by adding a small amount of money onto fines paid by criminal defendants, according to its sponsor, Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, a former state prosecutor.

“Law enforcement currently addresses this issue in South Carolina, but not to the level that we need to,” Pope said.

The bill would tack an extra 6.1 percent onto fines paid by criminal defendants to generate some $3.1 million on a recurring basis, according to Pope’s office. The money would be called the Internet Crimes Against Children Fund.