Former sixth grade social studies teacher David Thompson used to put in some late nights on the computer. But he wasn't grading papers.
"licking ur thighs inside will get u wet lol," the 49-year-old Tampa-area teacher pecked in a breathless Facebook IM to a 13-year-old Belizean girl who is identified in court documents as Minor Female Victim 1, or MFV1.
"Big Dave's" extracurricular creeping went on like that for another two weeks, until he was apparently feeling confident that he had convinced MFV1 to offer up her virginity in exchange for gifts and money. "ok then i will make sure u always have money," Thompson chatted her on Feb. 27, 2014, a week after he booked a flight to Belize for their illicit rendezvous.
Little did MFV1 know, but there was also an "MFV2," a 15-year-old Belizean girl Thompson was messaging on the other side of the country to negotiate a similar arrangement of sex-for-gifts. And apparently neither girl realized that their other new Facebook friend, a young Belizean girl named "Iris Levy," was also Thompson sockpuppeting as a local teen.
"if u give urself to dis man…he will neva forget dat and be there for as long as u want him,, Save it for him cause de man take care of u," Thompson chatted MFV1 in fake Creole under the assumed identity of Iris Levy.
Thompson presumably intended to seal the deal with a romp to Belize in March 2014. But before he could pack his bags, Homeland Security's Cyber Crimes Center was already reviewing a log of his salacious IMs provided by Facebook.
Airport authorities were alerted. Thompson was denied entry into Belize, then arrested upon his return to the U.S. with a suitcase neatly packed with condoms, Cialis and iPads. On May 6 Thompson was sentenced to 15 years in jail by a Florida District Court after he signed a plea agreement admitting that he intended to commit the crime of "persuading, inducing, enticing, and coercing a minor to engage in sexual activity."
In court, Thompson insisted he never molested any of his junior high students and wasn't really intending to have sex with the girls in Belize. “I thought everybody lied on Facebook,” Thompson said, according to The Tampa Tribune.
On one hand, the Internet makes it easier for predators to find their prey online, and even exploit victims virtually by instructing other adults to molest children on webcams while they watch from the safety of their homes, thousands of miles away. But at the same time, online mischief leaves a digital footprint, which makes it easier for authorities to track pedophiles and predators across cyberspace, sometimes nabbing them before they cross the Rubicon from virtual perverts to real life offenders.
"Since communicating over the Internet means users leave a digital footprint, police can now better investigate potential crimes, including the sexual exploitation of minors — and indeed adults," says Melina Lito, program officer for sex trafficking for Equality Now. "The Internet is hugely important in gathering evidence and building cases against traffickers and other exploiters."
But U.S. law enforcement needs Facebook's help to keep an eye on the prurient prowlings of online dirtbags.
"Law enforcement does not monitor general Internet activity, unless we are tipped off to it," says FBI Public Affairs Officer Christopher Allen. That means the FBI's ability to catch guys like Big Dave Thompson "logically requires someone to tip law enforcement," Allen adds.
In some cases, that someone is Facebook. The social media company has a security team of hundreds of people around the world monitoring the 1.4 billion Facebook users for offensive or harmful content. The company says it removes any exploitive content that threatens or promotes sexual violence and alerts law enforcement when it deems need for police intervention.
Exploitive content, according to Facebook, "includes the sexual exploitation of minors, and sexual assault. To protect victims and survivors, we also remove photographs or videos depicting incidents of sexual violence and images shared in revenge or without permissions from the people in the images."
But no one seems to know — or wants to say— just how often Facebook gets involved in tipping off law enforcement about suspicious online behavior. Facebook won't say, ICE claims it doesn't know, and FBI just said "No" when asked if they had any data on the number of Facebook tips they investigate.
What is clear is that online child pornography and sexual exploitation of minors is an enormous and growing market. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that there are an average of 2,000 arrests made in the U.S. each year for the possession of or trade in child porn. And that's just in the U.S.
Globally, the U.S. State Department estimates that more than 1 million children are exploited each year in the commercial sex trade. "That's in addition to the untold number of young victims of non-commercial sexual conduct," the FBI notes.
Children in undeveloped countries are often seen as easy prey by web-surfing pervs. And Latin America, with it's rapidly improving Internet connectivity, enormous wealth discrepancies, lax law enforcement and short flights from Miami and Houston, is a low-hanging fruit for weekend pedophiles.
The FBI, however, takes a global approach to policing illegal sex tourism.
"[It] makes no difference where these crimes occur—any U.S. citizen or permanent resident who engages in sexual contact with a minor overseas is subject to prosecution under various U.S. laws," the FBI reports on its site. The U.S. expanded its laws in 2003 with PROTECT Act, which, among other things, eliminates the statute of limitations for "crimes involving the abduction or physical or sexual abuse of a child."
Still, even the FBI admits it's difficult keeping up with the sex criminals. "The Internet makes it easier for potential predators to meet victims," the bureau's Allen says.
And as more of the world comes online, the market is growing exponentially.
"The growth of global Internet usage has a downside relating to the efforts to end sex trafficking," says Lito of Equality Now, an NGO that works for the human rights of women and girls around the world. "It can create a thriving marketplace for sex trafficking and sex tourism."
Ending sex tourism and the commercial sexual exploitation of minors is — of course — much more complicated than just policing the Internet for late-night deviants like Big Dave. It requires an integral solution that includes targeting demand, passing new legislation, and enforcing existing laws to ensure that exploitation is not encouraged or facilitated anywhere, Lito says.