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Reports Of Internet-Based Child Sex Crimes Up 85% In Idaho During The Pandemic

unidentified boy at a computer
Tom Woodward

In the age of camera phones, sharing apps and busy parents, the internet can be open season for child predators. Last year, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children fielded 21.7 million tips for internet-based child sex crimes — the most it’s recorded in a single year.

Chris McCormick leads the 18-member Internet Crimes Against Children task force in Idaho, one of 61 groups nationwide known as ICAC. Reports of these kinds of crimes were steadily rising in recent years, but the pandemic pushed reports to new heights.

“There's just a larger online presence [of] both predators and prey," McCormick said. "So right now, it's a target-rich environment."

ICAC in Idaho received 85% more tips last year than in 2019. During the first 12 months of the pandemic, the agency opened nearly 900 cases, fewer than were opened from March 2019 to March 2020, but nearly four times as many compared to the same period in 2018. Officials say case numbers in 2019 and early 2020 were artificially inflated due to efforts to close out other cases from previous years.

Kevin O’Brien is with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the nonprofit clearinghouse which receives most child-based cyber crime tips and forwards those to law enforcement. He said more people online leads to more opportunities to reach kids in chatrooms, over social media or other places online.

“Child sexual predators are going to try to capitalize on that increased online time by trying to entice those children to perform sexual acts, possibly meet up in person [and/or] produce their own child sexual abuse material," he said.

In the United Kingdom, The Guardian reports 44% of internet-based child sex crimes involve images taken by victims themselves. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children did not know that statistic for the United States.

While reports of all internet-based child sex crimes rose during the pandemic, enticement reports nearly doubled nationwide. O’Brien says that's partially because people are home to discover illicit activity. However, 98% of all tips came directly from technology companies, which have to report these crimes when discovered.

"We would certainly like to believe that it's the technology that's getting better to detect the crimes," he said. "So we're getting more of an accurate picture of what's out there versus the problem getting worse.”

Internet crimes cross domestic and international borders, and ICAC officers rely on collaboration with other law enforcement agencies to manage the ever-increasing workload.

"There's a strong percentage of our cases that were resolved back to a foreign country," said McCormick. "If it hits that egregious level where it needs to be followed up on, we've dealt with Interpol, we've dealt with other global organizations that have been able to help."

In Idaho, ICAC investigators criss-cross the state following leads, simultaneously working to educate local law enforcement on how to deal with these very specific types of crimes. "The more and more investigators we got throughout the state, it's going to be better not only for us, but for the state and for the children of the state," McCormick said.

Investigators also say prevention is key: parents staying involved in kids’ online activities, and maintaining an open dialogue with children about what’s OK and what’s not as they grow up in an online world.

Follow Troy Oppie on Twitter @GoodBadOppie for more local news.

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