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Online predators targeting kids who are online more now due to COVID, investigators say

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When coronavirus resulted in children being sent home from school so they could learn remotely in order to stay safe, law enforcement officials say online predators were waiting for the underage students.

The result has been an explosion of sexploitation and X-rated images of juveniles that have been posted online, prompting renewed efforts to track down offenders and curb the illegal online activity.

An undercover detective with the state's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force said it can be easy for children to fall into traps set by online stalkers.

"We uncover predators across the globe in every country," said Chris Hadnagy, founder of Innocent Lives Foundation, a non-profit led by tech experts who work with law enforcement officials to keep children safe.

Police say they need more assistance from the public.

"We need more people," said Seattle Police Department Sgt. Brandon James, who is the assistant commander for the state's Internet Crimes Against Children task force . "The explosion of the cyber tips from the National Center For Missing and Exploited Children has been tremendous in 2020."

James said the increase in inappropriate images of children is linked to the the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The explosion has been tremendous at all levels," he said. Including "federal and throughout all the states."

Those are the cases that James and his team are aware of but he said he believes the number of incidents are underreported.

"As I'm reviewing reports from members of the public or reports from electronic service providers like your Facebook and your Google, it's apparent that this is occurring at many other levels," James said. "And parents may not know how to even report it."

Stats show increase in reports of possible abuse

Recent numbers from NCMEC show that in one year the national cyber tip line saw a 63 percent increase in reports of child sexual abuse material and distribution.

For the first nine months of 2019, there were more than 11.2 million reports while that number rose to 18.4 million for that same period in 2020 when COVID-19 related quarantines and lockdowns were in full swing.

Predators know millions of kids are at home learning now that most schools have resorted to distance learning, and authorities say the criminals know where to find the children.

"They're grooming kids in many different places, so it's not just gaming sites and social media," Hadnagy said. "We found predators hanging out on homework sites where kids go to get help with their homework."

The websites are free, open and easily found since they were designed and created to help students with their school work.

"The predator quickly takes the conversation from the homework site to something like Snap Chat or Instagram DM or some other method where it's a private chat and they can be deleted quickly," Hadnagy said.

NCMEC has found that child sex traffickers have encountered a reluctance during the pandemic for buyers to meet in person. As a result, some traffickers are now offering virtual subscription-based services in which buyers pay to access online images and videos of a child being sexually abused.

"We even found a group of people who were selling access to these cameras," Hadnagy said. "You can buy access to an exploited child and you can control her for a number of dollars if you pay."

Children everywhere can be victims

Investigators say no child is off limits, regardless of their age. If the child has a device they're at risk, police said, adding that youngsters all over the country can be targets.

"Don't think this is a big city problem," Hadnagy said. "The last case we worked of a groomer was in a tiny, little, middle-of-nowhere America city. I mean literally the middle of nowhere in the mountains."

Parents, there's no way to 100% safeguard your kids. Police say know what apps are on your child's phone. Know what's happening on those apps and know who your child is chatting with. It's what you know that will help keep them safe.

Experts say there are things that can be done to keep kids safe, including:

  • Check your children’s devices, their search history, what they’re posting along with their emails, texts, and social media direct messages
  • Talk to your children about internet safety and online predators.
  • Make sure their social media accounts are turned to private and location tracking should be turned off.

Online chats quickly turn sexual

The school closures brought on by the pandemic means more children are online and unsupervised than normal.

And it is not just a national problem as law enforcement officials say Washington's cyber tips and online enticement reports mirror the same trends observed at the national level.

An undercover detective, who is not being identified by KOMO News to protect the nature of his investigative work, demonstrated to KOMO News how easy it is for a child to fall into an online predator's trap.

The investigator logged onto one of the many platforms kids have access to before being immediately connected to someone who says they are an 18-year-old male.

The detective identifies online as a 14-year-old girl as a brief introduction follows.

"Children get bored, and so when they get bored they're chatting online," the detective said. "They're on their apps and they're meeting new people. And there are predators that are waiting to jump on that opportunity."

Although the adult male ended the chat with the detective soon after it started, the exchange demonstrates how quickly predators can bite.

"The conversation starts . . . and eventually I'll tell him that I'm 12 or 13 or even 10," the detective said.

In just a matter of minutes, a third comment from the stranger turns sexual.

The undercover detective identifies as a 14-year-old girl who lives in Kent, prompting the person on the other end to disconnect.

Conversations can fast become illicit

Seconds later though a new chat starts.

This person identifies as an 18-year-old male, and the detective identifies as a 14-year-old girl.

Similar to the chat right before, the introduction is brief and quickly turns sexual.

The detective asks what the stranger would like to do and is met with a very sexual answer, which gets more graphic as it continues.

The online user says he has a car and offers to meet with the teen girl, opening the door to an in-person meeting.

"Imagine if I was the 14-year-old at home and alone and now I give out my address and he shows up and my parents aren't home," the detective said.

The activity is illegal and the adult could be charged with communication with a minor for immoral purposes. If the adult travels to the victim's home after the conversation turned sexual, the adult man could be facing a charge of attempted rape of a minor.

Tools to combat cyber

Seattle police Sgt. James works as the assistant commander for Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and said using an undercover detective is just one of the tools law enforcement officers employ to track child predators.

He said he is also alarmed by the sharp rise in children being targeted.

"This is unprecedented," James said. "The increase that we saw through 2020 because of COVID and other issues has been an unprecedented increase."

In addition to undercover work, law enforcement officers have a police K9 named Bear who works with Detective Ian Polhemus. The police dog helps officers find child sexual abuse material, also referred to as CSAM.

"A third of the time we're missing devices," Polhemus said. "That's not to say that all of those devices contain CSAM, but a number of them do."

During one call, Bear is sent into a house after investigators have done a search to see if there's anything they've missed.

Using his keen sense of smell, Bear can sniff out even the smallest of devices. It is not the content of those devices he's smelling, but a chemical.

"It's a particular glue that's used in the circuit board during the manufacturing of a variety of different devices," Polhemus said.

Detectives say there has been a significant rise in child sex cases, but due to the pandemic and coronavirus safety precautions, search warrants must still be carried out.

Polhemus said he expects that to change soon.

"What you're going to see in the next few months is the actual number of search warrants increase significantly," Polhemus said. "Now that those cases (have) been investigated, they've gotten to the point that we're ready to execute a search warrant."

The latest report from the Washington State Department of Health found that child sex predators are using the opportunity to entice children to produce sexually explicit material.

National rates of online enticement of children have increased almost 99 percent from 15,220 reports in 2019 to 30,236 reports in 2020.

"The most common thing we're seeing is the online enticements," James said, saying that includes many steps:

  • A predator pretends to be a kid connects with a child on social media.
  • The two exchange numbers or meet on secret apps.
  • Trust is built.
  • A relationship is established.
  • Nude or sexual images are exchanged.
  • Once that happens, it quickly spirals with the predator asking for more explicit pictures and threatens to tell the child's parents if pictures aren't sent.

James said his team is seeing an increase in the number of images being requested and collected by child predators.

"Once again, adults are dealing with COVID (and) they're at home more (and) not at work," James said. "And if they are involved in that kind of activity, we have seen that increase as well."

Once a picture or video is out there it's too late for the child or their parent to retrieve them.

"This is one of those things that it takes a village," James said. "And everybody is responsible."

Online sites for help

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There are several online resources to help parents or guardians keep their kids safe. Those include:

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