By Peter J. Sampson

With more than half of all Americans now using smartphones to stay in touch, federal authorities are venturing into new territory in a bid to enlist the public's help to track down child predators. A new smartphone application, the first of its kind in federal law enforcement, allows users to receive alerts about wanted predators and to submit tips about their whereabouts.

Developed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the software is part of an emerging trend in law enforcement to capitalize on new technologies that engage the public in solving crimes. In New Jersey's Bergen and Passaic counties, prosecutors on the front lines in the fight against child predators hailed the application as a promising innovation whose time has come.

The Operation Predator app was launched in September by ICE's Homeland Security Investigations Directorate, known as HSI. Within 36 hours, a series of tips led to the arrest in Michigan of one of the profiled suspects.

"The app allows everyone in the community _ not just law enforcement _ to work toward apprehending those who prey on our nation's most vulnerable, our children," said Andrew McLees, special agent in charge of HSI's Newark office.

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The agency needs the public's help in locating child predators, and the app goes a long way in getting agents timely information, he said.

The app shows photos and profiles of fugitives and unidentified suspects and allows the user to share that data with friends by email and on social media.

Tips can be anonymously submitted directly by tapping a button on the app or by phone. The app also offers news about arrests and prosecutions of alleged child pornographers and predators as well as additional resources about ICE and its global partners in the fight against child exploitation.

The app can be downloaded for free from Apple's App Store or iTunes. ICE plans to expand its compatibility to other smartphones, but officials could not say when that would happen.

More than 82,000 people downloaded the app in the month after its Sept. 12 debut, said Khaalid Walls, an ICE spokesman in Detroit. "Obviously, people are really excited about the app," Walls said. "And the fact that we had the Michigan arrest the first day and a half after its release shows it's an important law enforcement tool."

Brian Sinclair, who investigates online predators as head of the computer crimes unit in the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office, said the Operation Predator app is "a wonderful idea."

The app is a logical outgrowth of the kind of "crowd-sourcing" and multileveled outreach by law enforcement that followed the Boston Marathon bombings in April, said Sinclair, whose undercover unit has snared predators who traveled from as far away as Washington state and Florida to have sex with children.

In announcing the initiative, ICE acting Director John Sandweg talked of the importance of embracing new crime-fighting tools in the Internet age.

"When children are being sexually abused and exploited, it's a race against the clock to rescue the child and bring the predator to justice," he said.

"These investigations are one of our highest priorities, and in today's world, we need to be technologically savvy and innovative in our approach," Sandweg said.

On a five-week operation in May and June, part of ICE's efforts to catch abusers and child pornography distributors and to rescue victims of online sexual exploitation, the agency and task forces across the country arrested 255 alleged predators and identified 61 child victims.

Investigators uncovered a disturbing trend: Child predators are increasingly using the Internet to entice children to share sexually explicit material online, ICE said. In some cases, they were also sexually extorting, or "sextorting," the minors into producing increasingly graphic images and videos by threatening to expose previously obtained material, ICE said.

At the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va., officials have seen a steady increase in the number of tips coming into its cyber tip line over the past few years.

"The numbers are continuing to go up and a lot of that is because the companies ... the Facebooks, Microsofts, the Googles ... they're very proactive in monitoring their networks and making sure they're not hosting that type of material," said John Shehan, executive director of the center's exploited children division. The center received more than 400,000 reports last year, the vast majority related to the possession, manufacture and distribution of child pornography, Shehan said. It is on track to exceed that number this year, he said.

(c)2013 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)