Reports of online child sex abuse surge amid pandemic
Exploitation targets kids spending more time at home
Law enforcement officials in Los Angeles and across the country have been overwhelmed in recent months by a surge in tips about online child sex abuse, with social media platforms and other service providers flagging explicit content and suspicious interactions at an alarming rate.
With schools closed, youth activities canceled and kids spending more time online under stay-at-home orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic, sexual predators have ramped up their efforts to solicit pictures and videos, officials say.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a clearinghouse that disseminates tips to law enforcement, took in 4.1 million reports of child cyber abuse in April, a fourfold increase over April 2019, said John Shehan, head of the center’s exploited children division.
In March, the center received more than 2 million reports, more than double what it received in March 2019.
The surge has slowed in May, Shehan said, but the volume has remained above average.
“It was definitely a huge increase compared to the year prior, and has put a huge strain on law enforcement around the world, who are dealing with a pandemic and all of these reports coming in at the same time,” Shehan said.
The Los Angeles Police Department’s Internet Crimes Against Children unit, which processes tips from Shehan’s organization for five area counties before referring them to local agencies, received nearly 3,000 tips in April, up from 1,355 in March, said Lt. Anthony Cato, the unit’s commander.
More than half of the tips fell under the LAPD’s jurisdiction.
Still, two of the unit’s four investigators were recently redeployed to a special coronavirus task force helping find shelter for people in need. That has hampered the unit’s ability to respond just as reports spiked.
Investigations have continued — the unit makes about three arrests a month — but there’s a growing backlog of tips to review, officials said.
“We’re down detectives, and right now we should be fat with investigators to manage the amount of work that’s coming in,” said Det. Paula Meares, a unit supervisor.
LAPD spokesman Josh Rubenstein said the department has been forced to “shift precious resources” to the coronavirus crisis but remains “deeply committed to identifying and bringing to justice anyone that would victimize a child.”
“While it is a challenge to keep up with the many clues we are given regarding these troubling offenses, we are accomplishing that task and look forward to the day we can shift our resources back to their original roles,” he said.
Alicia Kozakiewicz, an internet safety expert and advocate for children — who survived being abducted nearly two decades ago — said the increased activity is sadly predictable. Children are more vulnerable at the moment because they, like all of us, feel isolated, and predators know it, she said.
“Right now children have no other social outlet, and they are experiencing a wide range of emotions,” said Kozakiewicz, 32. “What a predator does is they search for those vulnerabilities, they find them, and then they exploit them.”
Chat site lurkers
Offenders lurk on Facebook and Instagram but also lesser-known chat sites and gaming platforms, sharing images and videos already in their possession but also soliciting new material from young victims. Kids coerced into sending one inappropriate picture or video are often blackmailed into sending more explicit content, officials said.
In recent weeks, would-be predators have been observed on the dark web discussing the stay-at-home orders and how they might target kids who are increasingly going online for their education, entertainment and social interactions, Shehan said. Those who normally traffic children for sex have seen customers lose interest in physical encounters and have shifted to soliciting and selling explicit images of children online.
Others are contributing to the spread inadvertently. Several videos have gone viral, resulting in scores of tips, in part because people horrified by the content have shared them in an attempt to alert others and bring a stop to the abuse, Shehan said.
Victims range from teenagers to toddlers and infants, law enforcement officials and other experts said.
Internet companies mandated to monitor and report such activity on their platforms say they are doing everything they can to responsibly oversee content, immediately removing illegal images and alerting law enforcement to those responsible for it.
But there has long been concern among child advocacy groups and law enforcement officials that the processes aren’t robust enough.
In some instances, the coronavirus has undercut them further.
Facebook, which also owns Instagram, last month announced it was sending its content reviewers home because of the coronavirus threat and would be increasing its use of automated software to detect inappropriate content.
Last week, the company said technological improvements helped it “take down more child nudity and sexual exploitative content” on its platforms in recent months, but authorities remain skeptical and say a huge amount of illegal material continues to circulate.
As a result, parents must be vigilant, they said.
“That’s always been the message, but as things change — technology changes, social media evolves — parents need to keep up on that stuff,” Cato said.
Experts warned that the growing number of unchecked reports comes as other safety nets for children have collapsed, children have become increasingly vulnerable and sexual predators have gotten bolder.
With children stuck at home and away from their friends and teachers, reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect has fallen off dramatically, officials have noted.
“In this time of shelter in place, unfortunately children don’t have a lot of contacts with mandated reporters: teachers, mental health providers, coaches, mentors,” said Laura Abrams, chair of the Department of Social Welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
At the same time, many children are more exposed now to adults in their households who may want to harm them, the FBI warned last month.
Of the millions of tips funneled through Shehan’s organization, the vast majority of offenders are overseas and never come into direct contact with their victims. Parents who think their kids are safer than ever staying at home need to realize that, officials said.
“They’re not always trying to meet up with [kids] at a location, like [NBC’s reality TV show] ‘To Catch a Predator.’ They are abusing them on the internet,” Meares, the LAPD detective, said. “They don’t have to meet a child to sexually abuse them. They do it via livestream.”
Abrams said that sexual exploitation can cause stress and suicidal feelings in kids, and make it more difficult to focus or stick to normal sleeping patterns. However, huge disruptions to routine — which many kids have experienced recently — can lead to similar behavior or thoughts.
Instead of waiting for signs of a problem, parents should make a point of talking to their kids about who it is they are chatting with online and how they know them, and of checking their browser histories, Abrams said.
Kozakiewicz’s abduction at the age of 13 in 2002 by a man who had groomed her online was the first such internet case to gain widespread attention. At the time, there was no monitoring or reporting of such cyber activity.
In part because of that, she views the latest figures in a dual light, she said.
“Those numbers are horrifying, but at least we are aware,” she said. “Child abuse thrives in secrecy, it thrives in anonymity, it thrives in being unknown.”
Kozakiewicz said parents and guardians should make it clear to their children that they can come to them with concerns about things that happen in their online worlds, regardless of whether Mom and Dad seem stressed out at this time themselves, and without having to fear punishment — such as having their devices taken away.
If parents broach the topic first, she said, kids will feel empowered to speak up for themselves.