The COVID-19 pandemic brought child predators into people’s homes. In the critical areas of human trafficking and child exploitation, the risks to children increased due to criminals shifting their methods and techniques to online streaming services. Increased virtual learning and stay-home mandates forced children to transition from a classroom environment to home learning via virtual platforms. This transition done in the perceived safety of a child’s home under the supervision of his/her parent was and remains fraught with inherent danger.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recently warned that there is an increased online presence of children, and offenders are taking advantage by directly communicating with many of them. Offenders are using various internet chat rooms, online gaming platforms, and social media applications – bringing themselves right into living rooms and children’s bedrooms. This obviously creates a heightened risk of sexual exploitation, coercion through sextortion, and even sexual victimization when lured from the safety of their homes. According to the FBI press release:
Online sexual exploitation comes in many forms. Individuals may coerce victims into providing sexually explicit images or videos of themselves, often in compliance with offenders’ threats to post the images publicly or send the images to victims’ friends and family.
“Pedophiles are disrupting Zoom sessions. The FBI wants your help in finding them” read the 27 May 2020 NBC news story citing a report by the FBI that “more than 240 people disrupted Zoom sessions by broadcasting videos depicting child sexual abuse.” This adaption of criminal and depraved individuals only increases the need for proactive cyber awareness and physical security measures for the digital devices children access.
Online luring has reached a level that it should be part of law enforcement’s risk assessment process when reasons for the disappearance is not clear.
The Internet Threat Landscape – Social Media
This ever-interconnected world relies on the dependability and convenience of technology. Over the past decade, criminals have become increasingly adept in using open-source (i.e., publicly accessible) information to gain access to sensitive systems in both the public and private sectors. It is exceptionally easier for criminals to obtain what they need from the information published on open-source social media platforms.
The detailed data posted on social media can unwittingly offer a front row view into daily lives, habits, and whereabouts. Social media platforms contain target-rich data such as geospatial information, online photos, and personal identifiable information (e.g., name, age, date of birth). All this information can assist those who are committed to perpetrating acts of child exploitation. The ease of use, availability, and anonymity the internet offers makes it the conduit of choice for criminals. According to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, 41% of Americans have experienced some type of online harassment.
It is an unfortunate reality that missing and exploited children continue to be a massive challenge globally. According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), more than 21.7 million reports of suspected online child sexual exploitation were made to their CyberTipline in 2020. One form of exploitation reported to the CyberTipline is child sex trafficking. Of the more than 26,500 endangered runaways reported to NCMEC in 2020, one in six were likely victims of child sex trafficking. Today, 15 is the average age of child sex trafficking victims reported missing to NCMEC.
According to the FBI, there were more than 421,000 National Crime Information Center (NCIC) entries for missing children in 2019. Although parents and caregivers must recognize their role as the first line of defense when it comes to protecting children, it is critical for everyone to identify the signs and know how to intervene appropriately and effectively. Warning signs of those victimized by sexual exploitation may include:
- Emotional, angry, and aggressive outbursts
- Changes in behavior – such as, becoming introverted or withdrawn, perhaps isolating themselves from everyone else in the home
- Attempts to conceal or hide online activity
- Having social media accounts that parents do not know about
- Spending excessive amounts of time online
- Threatening to run away from home
- Suspicion of drug or alcohol abuse
- Lacking concerns for themselves; engaging in self-harming behaviors, including cutting and other high-risk activities
Luring of Children by Offenders vs. Runaway Children
Various social media applications and internet chatrooms offer unrestricted access to children. The motivation of the offenders may vary, but the most common is sexual – either through victimization (direct contact), exploitation (child sex trafficking or sharing sexual images or videos), and sometimes extortion of money.
Offenders generally either disguise their identities or present themselves as someone typically non-threatening or legitimate to the child, like taking on the persona of a child of similar age and gender. In the case of a female child, they may present themselves as a similar age male suggesting that they may have interest in them as a girlfriend. Others may suggest opportunities for the children to work as paid models or escorts with promises of earning a lucrative income and creating a path to a better and glamourous life.
In many cases, the initial goal is to lead or coerce the child into an inappropriate conversation of a sexual nature – something he or she may not normally engage in. Depending on the circumstances, this commences the grooming process that may go on for hours, days, weeks, or even months. Once the child participates in the conversation and it reaches a certain level, the offender then threatens to reveal the content to their friends and families or post the information on the internet for others to see. This then becomes a form of blackmail, where the offender then demands additional sexual content – usually sexually explicit photographs (nudity, etc.) or video (recorded or live) of a sexual performance. This common criminal practice led to the term “sextortion,” which is NCMEC defines as:
a new online exploitation crime directed towards children in which non-physical forms of coercion are used, such as blackmail, to acquire sexual content from the child, engage in sex with the child, or obtain money from the child.
In some egregious cases, offenders attempt to make direct physical contact with the child. They either arrange to meet them or demand that the child leave their home. Offenders travel, sometimes great distances, to either a pre-agreed upon location or even meet them right outside of their homes. In past cases, witnesses reported seeing the child jump out of their bedroom window and run directly to the awaiting car. Once contact is made, the offender takes the child to a location where the physical sexual victimization occurs. The child either returns home or remains with the offender for an extended period for additional victimization.
In some cases, the duration the child was away may have been relatively short. Therefore, parents or caregivers may not even be aware the child had left or was missing for any period of time. In these cases, the child may not report the victimization – largely out of fear.
However, when the child is discovered missing, the incident may initially present itself to law enforcement as a runaway. Obviously, this conclusion is based on the appearance of the child voluntarily leaving home and the lack of knowledge about the online grooming activity by the offender and the sextortion. Regardless, once this has been discovered, the missing incident should no longer be treated as a runaway. Instead, they should be considered as high-risk cases of “child abduction, facilitated by technology,” which calls for an escalated response and search.
The rate and prevalence of online luring has reached a level that consideration of the possibility of luring should be part of law enforcement’s risk assessment process when taking a report or investigating any runaway child or missing reports where reasons for the disappearance is not clear. Especially with older children, law enforcement should consider the possibility of an online component to all missing child reports.
Private Sector Capability
Private sector technology and support can make a difference in the effort to safeguard and rescue children. Many private sector companies and not-for-profit organizations are working in the field of child safety and human trafficking. However, law enforcement, health professionals, teachers, and public safety officials need help. A whole of society approach is required.
NCMEC and LexisNexis Risk Solutions serves as an example of this essential public-private partnership. Launched in November 2000 and donated by LexisNexis Risk Solutions to the NCMEC in response to a critical need of photo distribution when a child goes missing, the NCMEC uses the ADAM Program to quickly distribute missing child posters to specific geographic search areas, such as a state, zip code, area code, or a combined search area near a city and zip code.
ADAM stands for Automated Delivery of Alerts on Missing Children and is named in honor of Adam Walsh. This program with geo-targeted technology is open to the public for individuals, law enforcement, and businesses to sign up and receive missing child alerts within their specific geographic search area. Increased awareness raised about this program can significantly help in the recovery efforts of missing children. There are over 1.3 million recipients in the program (U.S. only). In partnership with NCMEC, the ADAM Program has helped recover close to 200 missing children and assisted in the recovery of countless others.
The continuation and improvement of information-sharing platforms between public and private institutions, police, federal law enforcement agencies, community, as well as civic and educational organizations are a necessary tool in the fight against child exploitation.
Call to Action – Law Enforcement
A whole of community approach is needed to combat child exploitation with an emphasis placed on education, training, and information sharing. The role of law enforcement is paramount to the successful recovery of children from exploitation and apprehension of individuals and groups responsible for these heinous acts against the most vulnerable of society. Law enforcement continues to adopt a multidisciplinary approach to combat this problem. These five recommendations are critical for law enforcement and public safety professionals to consider:
- Public education campaigns, training, and public service announcements – Police officials and investigators should be educated on the issues, scope of problem, and indicators of abuse to be on the lookout for when engaged with the public. An effective training and education outreach campaign established by public-private partnership is the Blue Campaign, which helps raise community awareness of the problem.
- Global partnerships – Increased partnerships with domestic and foreign law enforcement and government stakeholders are required to effectively combat this crime. The wide-scale availability and low cost of internet access has in many ways made this a borderless crime.
- Information sharing – Collaboration and effective targeted investigations are required to identify, apprehend, prosecute, and dismantle criminal networks that exist for the sole purpose of child exploitation. Jurisdictional issues and the mobility of many sex traffickers can create challenges to investigative and information sharing efforts.
- Training and investigative techniques – Continuous training and awareness of the problem is vital. Knowledge of trends and special considerations to identify signs of abuse, special considerations when interviewing a potential victim, and knowing the relevant questions to ask can have a positive influence.
- Community relationships – Collaboration and proactive engagement with community leaders, faith-based organizations, business owners, and the public are key to building trust, raising awareness, and increasing reports of suspected abuse.
The epidemic of child exploitation plaguing society is complex with far-reaching consequences for the victims, their families, and the nation. The problem has no borders, and those who perpetrate these hideous acts often operate in the inherent gaps of an open and free society. Law enforcement at all levels along with their global partners pursue these predators both day and night. Obligated to protect the youngest and most vulnerable populations, community efforts are multifaceted and enhanced by knowing the issues, recognizing indicators, and communicating them with potential victims as well as reporting all suspected abuse to appropriate authorities. Broader awareness of the risks leads to earlier recognition of signs of danger and hopefully prevention of a child becoming a victim of exploitation.
Additional resources not mentioned above:
Prevention Education & Professional Training (National Center for Missing & Exploited Children)
20 Actions for 2020 (Polaris Project)
COVID-19 Resources, Services, and Support – Anti-Trafficking (Administration for Children & Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)
Combating Child Sex Trafficking: A Guide for Law Enforcement Leaders (U.S. Department of Justice)
COPS OFFICE (U.S. Department of Justice)
Combating Child Sex Trafficking: A Guide for Law Enforcement Leaders (International Association of Chiefs of Police
Crimes Against Children/Online Predators (Federal Bureau of Investigation)