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September 9, 2022Washington, DC, United StatesChild Exploitation

Project iGuardian offers back-to-school tips to help keep kids safe online

Reminder to parents, educators to stay vigilant during new academic year

WASHINGTON – As kids and teens begin the 2022-2023 academic year, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) is reminding parents and educators that they play a key role in helping kids stay safer from online predators.

“While parents remain the best defense in keeping their children safe online, we want to emphasize that educators also play a significant role in expanding routine conversations with kids about exercising safe online behaviors,” said Erin Burke, Child Exploitation Investigations Unit (CEIU) chief. “Whether using the internet for homework and projects, playing games, or leisurely browsing, parents and educators need to remind kids to be aware of potential threats and encourage them to tell a trusted adult the moment someone makes them feel uncomfortable online. Online exploitation comes in so many forms – stopping this requires victims to come forward so those criminals can be investigated and brought to justice.”

Any time spent on the internet can potentially expose a child to cyber predators who know how to exploit them. Children are vulnerable when they are online – parents can help protect and help them make safer and smarter choices when they are online and interacting through social media.

This type of online exploitation is not always easily recognized, especially by younger kids. Predators often attempt to make casual contact with children through applications with messaging capability, many times using a fake persona claiming to be of similar age and opposite gender to gain the trust of their victim; this might eventually introduce sexual conversations that become more explicit over time. This abusive online interaction can progress to include the exchange of illicit images and may lead to an attempt to meet underaged victims in person. Some predators may also try to coerce victims into providing sexually explicit images and videos of themselves, with threats of showing these images to friends, families, and others if they do not send more images of themselves or send the offender some type of payment. This is typically referred to as ‘sextortion’.

HSI’s Project iGuardian focuses on keeping children and teens safer from online predators through ongoing education and awareness campaigns. The project is an outreach effort that focuses on sharing information about dangers within online environments, tips on how to stay safer online, and information on how to report abuse and suspicious activity.

Parents, guardians, and educators can help protect kids online by practicing the following:

  • Have regular conversations about online safety and ensure kids/teens know they can report if someone makes them feel uncomfortable online, including individuals who ask them for money
  • Review web-capable applications and games before they are downloaded
  • Ensure privacy settings are at the strictest level possible for mobile apps, online gaming systems, and other electronic devices
  • Monitor kids’ use of the internet at home and in the classroom – consider keeping electronic devices in open, common rooms of the house
  • Check kids’ profiles and monitor what information they post online, including who their ‘friends’ are
  • Explain to children that images posted online may be shared with others without their consent
  • Let children know that anyone who asks them to engage in sexually explicit activity online should be reported to a parent, guardian, or trusted adult and law enforcement
  • Make sure children know it is never their fault if they are victimized
  • Understand a laptop, phone, video game console, or other internet-connected device could lead children into a world where they may be at risk

The CEIU maintains a close working relationship with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) in the fight against child exploitation. Its partners at the NCMEC have created the NetSmartz educational outreach program which features information and resources tailored specifically to youth along with tips on how to talk to kids.

In Fiscal Year (FY) 2021, the number of children rescued and/or identified from instances of child exploitation grew to 1,177, compared to 1,012 in 2020. HSI also saw increases in the number of case-initiated indictments and convictions during the last FY. Since 2011, HSI has rescued and/or identified over 9,000 child victims, thanks in part to initiatives like Project iGuardian.

To report suspicious activity or instances of child sexual exploitation, contact local law enforcement. Tips can also be submitted online or by calling 866-347-2423. Reports can also be filed with the NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST or online at cybertipline.org.

If a parent discovers their child has been exploited or sextorted, please contact the nearest Child Advocacy Center or the NCMEC for a wide range of Victim & Family Support such as crisis intervention, emotional support, referrals to appropriate community agencies and mental health professionals, peer connection, and reunification assistance.

To request an iGuardian presentation at your school or organization, email iGuardian@ice.dhs.gov.

Homeland Security Investigations

HSI is the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move. HSI’s workforce of over 10,400 employees consists of more than 6,800 special agents assigned to 225 cities throughout the United States, and 86 overseas locations in 55 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.

Updated: 09/09/2022