Children at higher risk of online exploitation with schools closed, feds say

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EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Schools are closed and children are spending more time than ever connected to the internet on laptops, tablets and mobile devices.

But so are adults who may be prowling the worldwide web with the intent of exploiting these children, federal investigators say.

“Children around the world are experiencing a new form of education with greater internet usage, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted traditional classroom settings to virtual instruction,” said Matt Wright, chief of the Child Exploitation Investigations Unit at Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). “Increased presence online means children are at an even greater risk of encountering cyber predators who know how to exploit their vulnerabilities.”

With schools closed, children are spending more time online at home. (AP file photo)

With that in mind, both HSI and the FBI are urging parents to closely monitor their children’s Internet usage at home and to report inappropriate contact as soon as they learn about it.

“Exploitation comes in many forms,” said Miguel Sandoval, a special agent with the FBI’s Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking unit in the El Paso Division. “They may coerce victims into providing sexually explicit images and videos of themselves, often in compliance with the offender’s threats of exposing images the victim sent to friends, families and other folks. This is what we typically refer to a ‘sextortion.'”

Other offenders can be more subtle, more patient, he said. They may casually contact a minor online, gain his or her trust over time and eventually begin to exchange explicit images or suggest in-person meetings.

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That’s why parents should always be aware of what their children are doing with their communication devices and watch for signs of trouble, such as a change of behavior, particularly anxiety, depression or not wanting to be alone with adults, Sandoval said.

Miguel Sandoval, special agent with the FBI’s Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking units of the El Paso Division. (Image taken from Skype)

“If the child has a sudden increase in knowledge about sexual matters, that’s a sign,” he said.

There are no readily-available statistics to show that more children are being exploited since many schools closed in mid-March. But HSI said the number of children identified as victims of child exploitation grew to 1,069, compared to 859 the year prior. HSI also saw increases in the number of cases initiated, indictments and convictions during the last fiscal year. And since 2013, the agency has rescued or identified more than 6,500 child victims.

Both federal agencies offer advice so parents can prevent their children from becoming victims of child exploitation, and resources to get immediate help if they suspect something is going on.

  • Review and approve games and apps before they are downloaded onto a computer or cellphone.
  • Make sure privacy settings are set to the strictest level possible.
  • Monitor your children’s use of the Internet; keep electronic devices in an open, common room of the house.
  • Check your children’s profile and what they post online.
  • Explain to your children that images posted online will remain permanently on the Internet.
  • Make sure children know that anyone who asks a child to engage in sexually explicit activity online should be reported to a parent, caretaker, teacher or other trusted adult, as well as police.

Sandoval urges parents to report suspected abuse as soon as possible and not be tempted to just take away the device, admonish the minor and try to forget the whole thing. The sooner an investigation can get started, the more likely the predator can be caught.

Also, it’s best if children are told to be in an open area of the house while using the Internet or, in the case of older children to come close and ask what they’re doing. “If they’re in a hurry to hit the (close) button, that could be a sign,” he said. “The younger your child, the more you want to scrutinize their usage.”

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HSI has a public education program called iGuardian to prevent child exploitation. The FBI also relies on visits to schools and other public awareness techniques to keep children safe online. The school visits used to focus on high schools, but now younger children are also at risk because of the availability of cellphones and social media platforms like Zoom, which is under particular scrutiny.

“How early can they become a victim? The moment your child has a digital device with access to web. Every platform now has a chat feature and those conversations can transfer from a tablet or an Xbox to other platforms” that are more convenient for the predator, Sandoval said.

To alert authorities about child exploitation, submit tips online at www.ic3.gov, www.cybertipline.org or https://www.ice.gov/tipline, by phone at 866-DHS-2-ICE or (915) 832-5000.

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