Federal investigators expand app designed to seek public's help in catching child predators

BOSTON – An iPhone app designed to enlist the public’s help to catch fugitive and unknown suspected child predators led law enforcement officials to a suspect less than 36 hours after it became available. A year later, they are hoping to greatly expand their reach by making the app available in Android and Spanish versions, officials announced Tuesday.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations introduced the “Operation Predator” app for Apple products in Sept. 2013.

“This app is one piece of our commitment to ensuring child predators have absolutely nowhere to hide,” Acting ICE Director Thomas Winkowski said in a statement about the expansion.

The app allows users to receive alerts about wanted predators, to share the information through email and social media, and to pass along tips by filling out an online form or calling a tip line. It also allows users to see news about arrests and prosecutions of child predators. The app has been downloaded more than 93,000 times since it was introduced.

Bruce Foucart, special agent in charge of homeland security investigations in Boston, said workers at a tip line centre in Williston, Vermont, filter tips from around the country and send them to agents working in the field.

Foucart said the app connects users directly to the centre so they can phone in a tip or fill out an online form.

Investigators are hoping to reach many more people by making the Android and Spanish language versions available to the entire smartphone market.

“This just exposes it to that many more people,” Foucart said.

The Spanish language versions of the app are built into the iOS and Android applications and don’t require additional downloads.

For child predators who are fugitives, the agency posts photos and profiles, while for suspected predators whose identities are unknown to investigators, the agency will post last known addresses and whatever other information they have, including photos of identifying marks.

“Sometimes it will be a picture of a tattoo, where we say, if you’ve seen this on the right bicep, we’re interested in that information,” Foucart said.

Investigators were not able to immediately provide an estimate on the total number of people they believe have been caught because of tips reported through the app.

In April, authorities arrested a former Delano, California man in Mexicali, Mexico after his photos was featured on the app.

Michael David Wilson was arrested after a resident of Mexico alerted authorities to his whereabouts. Wilson fled the U.S. after being indicted on federal child pornography charges in July 2013 and authorities believed he was in Mexico.

When efforts to find him were unsuccessful, his mug shot and biographical information were posted on the app.

Wilson pleaded guilty in August to one count of receiving and distributing child pornography.