March 13, 2009 — -- Prosecutors in Houston say they have tracked down and arrested a man who allegedly committed an online sex crime -- though technically he didn't even have a computer.
All he needed, the prosecutors say, was a game console -- a Sony PlayStation 3. They allege that the man, Anthony Scott Oshea of Somerset, Ky., persuaded an 11-year-old girl in Houston to e-mail nude pictures of herself from her PlayStation to his.
Oshea was taken into custody this afternoon by local police near his home. Houston authorities say they will try to bring him to Texas for trial.
"People don't realize how the PlayStation is like a regular computer," said Eric Devlin, the Harris County, Texas, prosecutor who has been leading the case. The suspect, Devlin said, "threw his old computer out because he didn't need it."
Devlin said this is the first time his office has pursued a sex crime case involving a gaming console. His office is charging Oshea, 24, with three felony counts, including online solicitation of a minor and promotion of child pornography. One charge carries a maximum sentence of 99 years in prison.
"He 'groomed' the child for quite a long time," said Devlin. "He befriended her and pestered her for pictures, being a friend and pestering her at the same time."
Having gotten her to send him the pictures, Oshea then e-mailed them to people in at least five other states -- all through his console, Devlin charges.
"We didn't know how much you can do -- and we're geeks," said Devlin.
The PlayStation, like its major competitors, the Microsoft Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii, is just as capable of online access as any conventional computer with a screen, keyboard and mouse. (A keyboard can, in fact, be plugged in.) Many parents may not realize how quickly the Internet's reach has spread.
Law enforcement officials say the reach of sexual predators has spread as well. As young people play more and more online games, predators join in -- and some are very good at using kids' lingo in gaming messages to sound friendly.
"This should not shock anybody," said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "Those who prey upon children go to where the children are."
"They try to get their confidence," he said. "This is a way to get close to them."
Sex Crimes Against Children By Playing Video Games
To fight back, law enforcement agencies are seeking help from any source they can. The Utah Attorney General's office, for instance, got advice from a local 15-year-old, Zach Loulias -- who taught its investigators how to play various games and how to sound when posing as teenagers, chatting with a suspect online.
Lt. Jessica Farnsworth, field commander of Utah's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, said, "We've seen people solicit kids online through the games. The people doing these illegal acts, they're going to greater and greater lengths to hide what they're doing."
The Texas case, said technologists, is an illustration of just how broadly the term "online" needs to be defined. People are now reachable by computer, cell phone, personal digital assistant, game console -- and the list goes on.
"We have long been concerned that game systems are increasingly connected to the Web and could be used to attack children," said Rob Enderle, a well-known technology analyst, in an e-mail to ABC News. "Many are chat-enabled and controls over what is said may be inadequate.
"This does highlight that parents need to monitor what their children do on these systems as they should any personal computer, because, increasingly they (and phones) are becoming personal computers," Enderle wrote.
Devlin, the Texas prosecutor, said Sony helped his task force understand the workings of the PlayStation system. (Sony, contacted by ABC News, did not comment for this story.) All the major manufacturers include parental controls in their consoles -- though parents, sometimes kept at arm's length by rebellious teenagers, may have to be assertive about protecting their kids.
Microsoft, whose Xbox 360 competes with the PS3, has an Internet Safety Enforcement Team and says it trains police at conferences on how to work with the system.
"Can you think of an easier setting than playing games online?" said Allen. "These are games. These are children's games."