Warning: increase in online child sex exploitation cases

With both children and adults spending more time online due to virtual learning and social distancing measures associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Maryland State Police reminds those of all ages to be vigilant as it relates to internet safety.

Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, 2020, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) recorded 30,236 reports of online enticement of children, compared to 15,220 reports over the same period in 2019. This represents a 98.7% increase year-over-year.

According to the MSP Computer Crimes Unit, cyber tips concerning the potential sexual exploitation of children have increased considerably over the past year. Through Dec. 7, state police have received 5,433 cyber tips. This compares to 3,248 such tips for all of 2019 for a 67% increase.

Online enticement involves an individual communicating with someone believed to be a child via the internet with the intent to commit a sexual offense or abduction.

This is a broad category of online exploitation and includes sextortion, in which a child is being groomed to take sexually explicit images and/or ultimately meet face-to-face with someone for sexual purposes, or to engage in a sexual conversation online or, in some instances, to sell/trade the child’s sexual images. This type of victimization takes place across every platform; social media, messaging apps, gaming platforms, etc.

Children are often the target populations for online criminal activity. Parents are encouraged to monitor their children’s use of all digital devices. Digital devices include laptops, tablets, desktop computers and ‘smart’ phones.

Maryland State Police and NCMEC are aware of instances where child predators are using the darknet to entice children to produce sexually explicit material. According to NCMEC, some child traffickers adjusted to the reluctance of buyers to meet in-person to engage in commercial sex. Some traffickers are now offering options for subscription-based services in which buyers pay to access online images and videos of the child.

Despite these dangers, there are several tips parents can take to help keep their children safe from Internet predators:

• Continuously monitor all of your child’s online activity;

• Be aware of who your children are communicating with online;

• Talk with your children about online content;

• Remind children to avoid communication with strangers;

• Maintain control of apps downloaded on your child’s device;

• Be aware of what children see and hear and who they meet; and

• Know what information your child is sharing.

Complaints involving the exploitation of children should be filed with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) at www.missingkids.com or 1-800-THE-LOST. Complaints of child exploitation may include harassment, cyberbullying, and child pornography. Maryland State Police investigators in the Computer Crimes Unit work closely with NCMEC in the investigation of crimes involving child exploitation. If a child is believed to be in imminent danger, citizens are urged to contact their local police or call 9-1-1 immediately.

The Maryland State Police Computer Crimes Unit urges people of all ages to take into consideration the vulnerabilities associated with online activity. The Computer Crimes Section operates and administers the Maryland Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force, which is comprised of police agencies statewide who work tirelessly to target offenders of child sexual exploitation.

The Task Force’s primary mission continues to be to protect children from computer-facilitated sexual exploitation. This goal is achieved by cooperation between law enforcement agencies and prosecutors as they combine resources to combat these crimes. Additionally, the Task Force also provides community awareness campaigns helping to prevent the spread of these crimes through education.

Maryland State Police

Office of Media Communications

Pikesville

— To learn more how to protect children from the dangers in cyberspace, download the latest Maryland State Police podcast with guest Joe Dugan, Internet Safety Specialist with the Internet Crimes Against Children Maryland Task Force at https://www.buzzsprout.com/1469332/6837913.