Special Agent Cole Shares How Creative Inter-Agency Collaboration Aids in the Fight Against Exploitation

Some people stand out from the crowd and go the extra mile, not for personal reasons, but because they are ethical, unadulterated humanitarians.

Jim Cole is one of those people.

We at The Knoble are grateful for the opportunity to interview Supervisory Special Agent Jim Cole and share how his industry experience, collaborative nature, and ethics have all been tested—and resulted in new ways to increase investigative efforts surrounding exploitation.

Jim Cole sits down for an interview with Rosie Cataldo for The Knoble:

RC: How long have you been involved with Homeland Security, Jim?

JC: I began my career with Homeland Security investigations in 2003 and started in the Portland, Oregon office. In 2011, I was promoted to our headquarters at the HSI Cyber Crime Center, where I founded and supervised our Victim Identification Program and Laboratory. The program is very CSI-like and utilizes advanced image, video, and audio forensics to identify and rescue child victims, identify and apprehend the offenders and identify and locate the crime scene related to child sexual abuse material (CSAM). After seven years heading up that effort, I was pulled up to the HSI Director’s executive staff (via Derek Benner, board member, The Knoble). In 2019, I was promoted to our Nashville office, where I currently lead our Cyber, Child Sexual Exploitation, Digital Forensics, and Victim Service portfolios.

RC: How long have you focused on online child sexual exploitation?

JC: I was almost immediately assigned to work on child exploitation cases. So, my entire career with HSI, so about 20 years.

RC: Can you share a bit about how INTERCEPT was formed? (Inter-Agency Child Exploitation and Persons Trafficking Task Force.)

JC: Absolutely. As an agent in Portland, I helped start a child exploitation task force. It was multi-agency. It worked very, very well. After coming back out to what we call the field—a field office—to Nashville, one of the first things I wanted to do was replicate that success. I always feel we work better together.

I started meeting with our law enforcement partners and stakeholders throughout Tennessee. The landscape has changed a little bit in the last 15 years. And our law enforcement agencies didn’t have the resources we had at that time in Oregon. The agencies thought a task force was a good idea, but none had the resources to put a detective on it. Law enforcement agencies today are resource-starved, especially in child exploitation and trafficking.

Fast forward—an NGO approached me in early 2020 and wanted to help combat human trafficking and child exploitation. The NGO’s founder had a personal story of losing his younger sister to trafficking after being trafficked and murdered. He came out of Army Special Forces and was doing some tip-of-the-spear stuff, so his ideas were very vigilante-type.

After listening to and shooting down several of his ideas, I thought vigilante activity was not a viable solution. Not if you’re going to work with law enforcement. I remember him being a bit shocked and having to gather himself, but once he did, he looked me straight in the eyes and said, “So you tell me then, how do I honor my sister? How do I make a difference? How do I ensure no other family has to go through what mine went through? I thought this was different. This guy has a passion. I then told him my story of trying to start the task force, and the local agencies didn’t have the resources and needed funding, personnel, training, and technology. He lit up and said, “Yes, I love it!”

Law enforcement needs funding and resources. They need extra bodies, equipment, and help to do this correctly. We work with agencies that do not have laptops to deal with the type of digital evidence we encounter in CSAM files. Putting that material on your police network is not a good idea. We have detectives that don’t have vehicles. I spoke to an agency last week where they are hurting for cars. The two detectives that work these crimes now share one car. This limits their ability to be efficient. Simple resources like that—which most of the community thinks are a given for law enforcement to have, are not. As we sit here today, the lack of resources prevents law enforcement from being efficient and effective in the fight against child exploitation and trafficking.

If you look at the amount of money the US government spends on the counter drug mission, you know that last year was $40 billion. And that’s all to include prevention, enforcement, etc. But if you look at what the US government spent on child exploitation and child s*x trafficking, we estimate that to be about $200 million.

It’s an order of magnitude smaller. But these are children. We know there’s a correlation there. We know that people suffer trauma and significant trauma, and sexual abuse is considerable trauma. If not afforded the proper care, counseling, treatment, and therapy, people often turn to controlled substances to cope with that pain and trauma. But none of that funding is helping this kind of feeder-into-the-drug-user population. These are issues we are trying to address through INTERCEPT and our partners.

RC: These issues are vitally important. What are some of the top focus areas of INTERCEPT?

JC: INTERCEPT is a law enforcement task force—a multidisciplinary task force investigating child sexual exploitation and trafficking cases holistically to include victim services and working with other entities to provide services. Our public and private partners, along with non-government organizations—and eventually, hopefully, our medical field—collaborate to deal with this issue holistically from the law enforcement perspective. We have to start viewing and dealing with child exploitation and trafficking as a public health crisis. Anything else causing so much harm at even half the scale would be. Simply because of the complex subject matter, it’s buried.

Law enforcement is an essential piece in the fight against child exploitation. There will always be offenders in situations where the only viable option is, you know—investigation, arrest, prosecution, and incarceration. But there are so many pieces to this. Honestly, we have to change the perspective of our global population and communities to look at this more as a public health crisis. And you know, this phrase has become a little bit cliche, ‘We’ll never arrest our way out of this problem,’ but it’s absolutely true. We won’t. So we have to start thinking more about community education and prevention. It’s critical to what we do.

INTERCEPT has an education and prevention piece, but it’s law enforcement talking to communities, particularly the vulnerable segments of our population and parents who parent vulnerable youth. I would love it if we could work ourselves out of a job. I honestly would love that. Because in my experience—I’m not the only person—but I’m one of the few people with a perspective, working this crime type almost my entire career.

Starting 20 years ago and seeing what it was like in early 2000—I have witnessed this crime change, morph, and adapt as technology has become more prevalent and intrusive in our lives. We are watching how the offender population has been quick and early adopters of technology. We see them jump on technology very, very early. There’s also a less technologically savvy segment that will catch up. But we see new modalities popping up where offenders jump on them quickly.

It’s unique to watch that whole journey from very early up to now and watch it change almost daily, to be honest. And so I think INTERCEPT is a new concept where through private funding, a 501c3 nonprofit is assisting with resources for local law enforcement agencies that can legally accept private funding.

Not everybody can accept funding from a private entity, including the federal government, but local agencies can legally receive private financing or have a mechanism to do so. INTERCEPT is a significant force multiplier to any financing or resources the government provides. Honestly, we need to fund and resource this better as a nation.

Regarding the relationship between INTERCEPTand Operational Light Shine, a Tennessee-based nonprofit, the organization facilitates fundraisers and other resources for our local law enforcement partners. From the federal perspective, the more agencies we can have involved in the fight, the better. As a federal government entity, we can’t accept private funding. Therefore, this partnership enables local law enforcement to work on these crimes with us.

“Most agencies are either not working on these crimes or only working on them when a lead comes in. That’s very reactive. It gets jumbled in with all the other cases. Very few agencies have dedicated resources directly dealing with these crimes.”

Generally speaking, it’s going to be your more prominent agencies, or you have some smaller agencies where maybe there was an executive in leadership who has a passion and ensures that their agencies are involved. But, most agencies we deal with are not proactively working on these cases. They are not seeking these cases out due to a lack of resources. We have great partnerships and are often called to assist with these cases, so we’re working with them, but if we could get a full-time resource that changes the game, the only way the agencies can afford to do that is through private funding.

RC: That’s an excellent and creative solution. What detection strategies would you like fraud fighters to know, particularly when filing a suspicious activity report (SAR)?

It is interesting because we are currently seeing this real uptick in financial-based sextortion cases. These cases started noticeably hitting us about a year ago, and they’ve only gotten more prolific.

JC: We’re seeing these organized criminal groups, primarily based out of Africa, that have learned that they can monetize the modus operandi of sexual offenders who offend against children through online sexual exploitation. All they did was change the end goal from being more sexual content to financial gain.

Interestingly, we have not been able to turn that spigot off collectively. What we see is that there’s this massive proliferation of these. And I only know what I see in my jurisdiction, in my area of operation [Nashville, TN]. We’re seeing three to seven of these cases a week. These cases are devastating to families. We’ve seen children harming themselves, even committing suicide in these cases. It’s horrendous and heart-wrenching.

It has amazed me that it has been allowed to proliferate. We’re playing, to some extent—whack-a-mole with this. We are 100 percent reactive. Right now, digital service providers are using algorithms to figure out this type of activity on their platforms. Then, they submit a cyber tip to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). The NCMEC is then doing some added value work to the lead, pushing it out to law enforcement. Then, we take that lead and contact a victim to provide services.

We will come in with services and some advocacy, but wouldn’t it be better if we stopped it right from happening in the first place? Or if we stopped the mechanism of payment from happening? Why can’t we take all these transactions and look at the similarities of these transactions?

These types of transactions occur mainly across payment apps or gift cards. So why can’t we figure that out? Why can’t we take the ability for the victim to pay away, which then de-incentivizes the crime?

The criminals push that around because the payments look like almost any fraudulent payments. This happens in a lot of different realms. It comes from organized crime groups, primarily based out of Africa. They use money mules, but those transactions are a recognizable pattern.

Right now, we have two countries where we see most of this coming out—primarily Nigeria and the Ivory Coast. The payments are not going to the Ivory Coast. They are going to a mule, some in the United States, some not—before it goes to Ivory Coast or Nigeria. There’s a network there. The [money] mules shouldn’t be that difficult to identify. The volume of the transactions and where they’re returning to—Ivory Coast or Nigeria—that network should not be that hard to identify.

Let’s cut the head off of the snake versus responding to everything that the snake is biting. That’s what we’re doing. We’re running around basically responding to the aftermath instead of stopping the harm from occurring in the first place.

RC: Excellent, Jim. Can you comment on the types of payment apps used in this type of sextortion more frequently than others?

JC: We see Cash App used a lot. To a lesser extent, we see the different mobile pay apps—Apple Pay, Google Pay, and Venmo. We see pretty much any payment app used. We also see the Target and Apple gift cards.

I always thought, well, gosh, these guys are targeting children, and children don’t have a lot of access to money. I have been surprised at the fact that kids have access to these kinds of things. So it isn’t as tricky as most adults probably think it is for a kid to get asked for $50, $400, and $500 increment gift cards—all through their phone, which they can do without ever leaving the house.

I know some of these exploitative schemes target adults. I’m familiar with a case where an adult was targeted and sextorted for almost half a million dollars—which is an insane amount of money.

We also need to think: What is that money used for on the other end? What type of crime is that? Now the bad guys have almost unlimited financial resources to fight us. Not only are we seeing all this victimization, but we’re also creating this environment where we’re allowing the bad guys to become more financially resourced than those fighting it.

RC: It is past the time to change the tide on that one.

JC: Absolutely. We’ve got to look at this from an all-hands-on-deck kind of perspective. Law enforcement has only so much ability, and we cannot see the networks as quickly as the financial industry can. They [financial institutions] can see within their networks and don’t need a legal process.

One of the inhibiting factors is that the current system is set up through SARs. But, SARs are about individual transactions primarily. We need a more comprehensive look at systemic transactions over time and the ability to get law enforcement involved when it’s criminal activity. In some cases, you’ve got to look at non-law enforcement, harsher response because, without a doubt, some of this stuff is going back to finance terrorism.

Doing the Right Thing

RC: What would you advise bankers and financial institutions to watch out for—specifically to motivate them to go beyond what is required within their role?

JC: I think there are some exciting developments as of late. You’ve got the MindGeek lawsuit with Visa, specifically, being brought into that lawsuit. MindGeek is the parent company of p**n Hub. And now, potentially, you have victims of a specific type of exploitation on the platform.

Now, what’s interesting is that from the law enforcement perspective, a platform like p**n Hub and a company like MindGeek have not been perfect. However, we see that particular company is more proactive than other mainstream companies that provide digital platforms. They have no incentive to have child abuse content on their platform.

I have spoken with MindGeek’s director of global safety and responsibility. He said they’d had cases where they’ve had to provide them with legal service, and they are immediately responsive. They don’t fight. But I can tell you that there are mainstream digital service platforms out there that are nowhere near as responsive.

When a person confronts MindGeek and says, ‘My content is on the platform, I did not consent to that, and I am a minor,’ they were slow to act. When law enforcement comes to them, they’re very fast to act.

But this [MindGeek] lawsuit ought to have payment processors take a different view and think about this more from a legal liability stance. It is challenging to motivate profitable companies to do the right thing. We see that with digital platforms. We see that with almost everybody. But now, there is a financial incentive to do the right thing. Hopefully, we’ll see some change there.

Staying Grounded

RC: With more than 30 years of experience within law enforcement, what do you do to stay grounded and not get overwhelmed by some of the darker cases and investigations?

JC: It’s an interesting question, and I think it’s different for everybody. I have a resilient personality, but not everybody has it, and that’s not a weakness or a flaw. It’s just different. I’m the type of person who, although exposed to much trauma—I’m a former homicide detective, I’m a former child abuse detective—those are complex topics. Suppose I look back at my exposure to trauma. In that case, it goes back to the early-to-mid-nineties, when I was in the Army and deployed to the Republic of Haiti for Operation Uphold and Restored Democracy.

Although it wasn’t a combat environment, we saw many deaths, suffering, poverty, and despair. And a vast amount of what I would say is the cultural attitude toward life or the lack thereof. Life just wasn’t as important. It was as though human life wasn’t cherished as much. This can be attributed to systemic poverty and a lack of hope. Haiti is one of those places that pulls at my heartstrings because I spent almost six months there, trying to make improvements.

That’s where my introduction to death and trauma probably started. And then from there, going on to be a police officer, which, you know, chaos, death, and suffering are just part of the daily job.

I was a narcotics detective and then a child abuse detective. I was a violent crime detective before going federal, and then almost immediately, I began working with child exploitation. I did get tired. I remember telling people this: ‘I got tired of standing over dead bodies.’

We use a lot of different coping mechanisms. One of the most effective coping mechanisms is the camaraderie with people going through similar experiences. It’s challenging to relate to somebody who has never seen a dead body versus someone dealing with murder—and has seen many ways in which people can die. The camaraderie is true to this day.

My colleagues are my brothers and sisters; they are people with whom we are bonded in our shared collective experience. And because of that, I always have a shoulder to lean on.

As a supervisor, I take that to a different level—I’m always trying to look out for my folks. If I notice changes in behavior, I will act on them. One of my best friends in the world is now a retired agent who also worked this crime type for 25 years. He worked, in my opinion, as one of the most complex parts of this crime. He was an online undercover [investigator].

I have a hard time acting like a bad guy. I could not put myself into the role. Then we have people who are amazing at it, but I think they are at the most risk regarding work-related mental health issues. It’s critically important that we take the mental well-being of our folks who deal with this content, these horrible experiences, and the vicarious trauma of others very seriously. They need to know they have support and that we are looking out for them.


Interviewer’s note: On behalf of The Knoble, we would like to extend our sincere gratitude and respect for the dedication and service work that Jim Cole and fellow investigators exhibit. May this interview remind us of the collaborative work required to successfully deter human crimes and ignite us all to make an impact for the greater good.

Rosie Cataldo, for The Knoble

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