WASHINGTON — More than 550 victims of child sexual abuse and exploitation have been identified by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agents in the first eight months of fiscal year 2014. The victims were identified during the course of HSI-led or jointly led child exploitation investigations ranging from the production and distribution of online child pornography to child sex tourism. Of the 585 children identified this fiscal year as part of HSI international investigations into child sexual exploitation, 430 victims were located in the United States in nearly every corner of the country. Slightly more girls were victimized than boys: 288 girls versus 264 boys.
Investigators at the HSI Cyber Crimes Center say that these shocking statistics are a reminder about how dangerous the Internet can be and that summer is a good time for parents to talk to their children about online safety. "Summer vacation is a time when children and teens often have more access to the Internet, making this a good time to talk about how to stay safe online," said Patrick Redling, unit chief of the center's child exploitation investigations unit.
Many cases of child exploitation begin with a child or teen chatting with someone he or she met online, according to Redling. Investigators routinely encounter child predators chatting online with minors about sexual topics, sending them obscene images, encouraging them to produce nude or sexual photos and videos, and attempting to meet them in person to engage in sexual activity.
Earlier this year, to help raise awareness, HSI partnered with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's Netsmartz to create Project iGuardian, an educational outreach program for children, tweens, teens and adults. Presentations given by HSI special agents vary by age group, and can be requested online by schools, organizations and community groups.
As part of the presentations, the following tips are provided to parents and children:
Tips for Parents:
- Talk to children about Internet predators and whether they have ever been approached online. Visit Netsmartz.org for conversation starters on a variety of topics.
- Keep the computer in a common area of the house, but don't forget that online technology is also available on cell phones, laptops, tablets, and gaming devices.
- Set limits for what sites can be visited and have your children show you what sites they are frequently visiting.
- Recognize signs of victimization and grooming. If your child has become withdrawn and isolated from friends and family, you find inappropriate material on the computer or mobile device, or if your child is communicating or receiving money or gifts from an unknown person.
- Ask them to tell you if anything makes them feel scared, confused or uncomfortable. Let them know that online sexual exploitation of children is a crime and that it should be reported to law enforcement.
- Encourage them to report cyber bulling, not just when it happens to them but when they see others being bullied as well.
Tips for Kids:
- Never share pictures of yourself online that you wouldn't want seen by your family, teachers or a total stranger.
- Don't respond to offensive content and don't forward images or info that might hurt or embarrass someone.
- Don't accept friend requests from strangers. Change your passwords regularly so strangers can't find you.
- Set user profile to private so only real friends can get access. Know who you're chatting with – a "friend" is not always a friend.
- Don't share personal information online like your full name, school, address or phone number, or user passwords.
- Remember that anything posted online lives on forever and can be shared with anyone anywhere in the world.
- Stop the harassment. Treat people online as you would in person and don't be mean or rude. Report cyber bullying to a trusted adult.
- Tell an adult if someone makes you feel uncomfortable by their actions or words. If you suspect online "stalking," sexual exploitation, or other suspicious behavior, report it to law enforcement.
- Don't meet up in person with anyone you met online.
- Check your privacy settings on social media sites frequently, as they can reset due to site updates.
In 2013, HSI identified and rescued more than 900 children and arrested more than 2,000 individuals for sexual crimes against children under Operation Predator, HSI's nationwide initiative to protect children from sexual predators. Since the launch of Operation Predator in 2003, HSI has arrested more than 10,000 individuals for crimes against children, including the production and distribution of online child pornography, traveling overseas for sex with minors, and sex trafficking of children.
HSI encourages the public to report suspected child predators and any suspicious activity through its toll-free Tip Line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or by completing its online tip form. Both are staffed around the clock by investigators. Suspected child sexual exploitation or missing children may be reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, an Operation Predator partner, via its toll-free 24-hour hotline, 1-800-THE-LOST.
HSI is a founding member and current chair of the Virtual Global Taskforce, an international alliance of law enforcement agencies and private industry sector partners working together to prevent and deter online child sexual abuse.