Under the pandemic, law enforcement has seen a surge in reports of sexual crimes against minors online, driven by quarantined kids — and predators — spending more time in front of screens.
In March and April, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has counted more than 1,000 complaints involving child pornography or other forms of cyber exploitation of children, a 30% increase from the same time last year.
“It’s very unusual to see such a large jump,” said Drew Evans, superintendent of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the agency that operates the Internet Crimes Against Children investigative unit.
The rise in Minnesota is only one piece of a pattern of opportunistic predators using quarantine conditions to exploit children around the country. The National Center of Missing and Exploited Children, which serves as a clearinghouse for these incidents reported in the United States, recorded more than 6 million tips in March and April — triple what it counted in the same period in 2019.
“That’s probably the largest number of reports in a two-month period that we’ve ever received,” said John Shehan, vice president of the center’s Exploited Children Division. Shehan said child predators on the dark web are candidly discussing their intentions to exploit the stay-at-home orders.
At the same time, Minnesota has suspended the use of grand juries during quarantine, taking away the mechanism federal prosecutors rely on to indict suspects of these types of crimes.
“We’re not indicting cases, but they’re still coming in and we’re still working them,” said Minnesota U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald.
Once the suspension ends, MacDonald expects a swell in indictments. In the meantime, she said, her office is working with law enforcement and county prosecutors around Minnesota to make sure “we don’t leave people in the community who are posing an imminent threat” to children.
The type of incidents being reported run the gamut, with a majority being forms of child pornography, said Shehan.
A significant contributor to the rise under quarantine has come from graphic videos of child abuse going viral on social media sites, he said. In some cases, people are sharing these videos out of outrage, some with the intention to help identify the victims through crowd sourcing, instead of reporting them to the website’s administrators or law enforcement.
“What they don’t realize is they’re breaking the law,” Shehan said. “It’s illegal to be posting or resharing child sexual abuse content.”
In other instances, hackers are breaking into online videoconferences and sharing graphic images and child pornography. Such was the case in a Minneapolis neighborhood meeting on May 7.
Another large portion of tips is for incidents of “sextortion,” the umbrella term for a range of crimes involving enticement and coercion of children online, usually on social media. In a typical case, an adult may pose as a teenager and manipulate a young person online to send them lewd photos. Then the predator threatens to send the photos to the victim’s friends, parents or teachers unless they get what they want, which is usually more photos or, in some cases, sexual favors.
Even before the pandemic, federal prosecutors in Minnesota said they were struggling to keep up with an alarming rise in sextortion crimes. Quarantine has exacerbated the problem.
Kids are spending more time online, both for entertainment and distance learning. They are bored, leading to riskier behaviors. Being away from school means fewer avenues of reporting problematic interactions. And parents are facing more distractions as they adapt to new roles at home as teachers, chefs and full-time caretakers.
“Parents are stretched so thin and asked to do so much right now,” said MacDonald. “It just leads to a very target-rich environment for kids to be preyed upon.”
MacDonald said parents should engage in frank conversations with their kids about internet safety. “Sometimes you gotta take away just a little bit of innocence to protect a whole lot of innocence and pain,” she said.
She recommended parents monitor their kids’ online profiles to see what they’re posting, set privacy settings for video games and consider not letting kids take devices to bed at night.
“Kids are so sophisticated these days,” she said. “They know how to use apps, they know how to use these devices, a lot of times far better than their parents do.”
To report child pornography or sextortion, contact the Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-843-5678.