HAMPTON ROADS, Va. - News 3 is investigating how online predators are trying to exploit your children as the pandemic continues.
Case after case continues to come into the offices of those who investigate online crimes against children.
“It's extremely overwhelming,” said Sgt. Stephen Anders with the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office and an assistant commander for the Southern Virginia Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce. “We just don't have enough people to work the number of cases that we've got coming in. We saw a huge, exponential increase once the lockdowns started happening in March.”
Anders said in 2020 they received almost 4,000 cyber tips in the Southeast Virginia region, which is a 71% increase over 2019.
Anders said cyber tips come from two primary sources: electronic service providers (ESPs) and members of the public. ESPs are companies that provide content or access to content like Google, Facebook, Snapchat, Comcast, Verizon or many other groups. They are required to report suspicious or inappropriate images of children to officials.
Categories of the tips include online enticement of children for sexual acts, child sexual molestation, child pornography, child sex tourism, child sex trafficking or unsolicited obscene materials sent to a child. The tips are sent to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, then filtered to law enforcement in the various states.
Anders said they attribute the higher number of reported tips to more kids being at home doing virtual learning.
He said many parents have to go to work and provide for the family, so some children are left alone at home. Predators are also at home on the computer more often.
“They're either out of work or they are working from home as well so they have access to the computers, maybe not so much oversight that they would have at their office and not as much risk in their mind of being caught,” Anders said. “This just creates a lot more opportunity for offenders to reach out and communicate with children.”
He said COVID-19 has hindered the task force's investigating efforts and made it more difficult to execute search warrants throughout the pandemic.
Anders said parents need to take action and have more communication with kids. He said the children should know they can talk to their parents about inappropriate behavior online, and he encourages parents not to freak out if there is a problem.
According to Anders, parents need to “lead the narrative as to what is normal sexual behavior, what is acceptable and healthy.” He said kids are going to mimic what they are seeing online, and they are exposed to far more than any other generation.
Anders said it’s not a matter of if your kid will see something inappropriate online, it's a matter of when they will see content that is bad for them.
Too many parents think it won’t happen to their child, Anders said. “I can't tell you how many times a parent has told me once we finish the case and identify and rescue their child, they never thought it would be their child."
To learn more about the task force's work and how to keep your kids safe online, visit the SOVA-ICAC website, the Kids Health Internet Safety page or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.