MISSION VIEJO – Do you know what your children are doing online?
The father of an Orange County teenage girl thought he did. He said he was shocked when he discovered last year that his “sweet little girl” was exchanging sexually explicit videos, photos and text messages with strange men on Facebook and apps like Snapchat.
The Register is not naming the father to avoid identifying his then 16-year-old daughter, the victim of a sexual predator. When he and the girl’s stepmother discovered the images on her smart phone, they immediately called authorities — and a 27-year-old man was arrested.
To help curb the escalating number of children falling prey to sexual predators online, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations division launched a first-of-its-kind national cyber safety campaign Tuesday in partnership with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. The campaign was announced during a news conference at Newhart Middle School in Mission Viejo.
Every week, the National Center receives 1,500 reports of dissemination of child pornography or other forms of online sexual exploitation of children, said Michelle Collins, the center’s vice president.
“Every year we receive more and more reports,” Collins said, adding that last year they received more than 500,000 reports.
The safety campaign is called Project iGuardian. Its goal is to teach young Internet users to “think before you click” and to raise awareness about the risks that lurk in cyberspace. The campaign will target grade-school students and teenagers nationwide.
“The online sexual exploitation of children has reached epidemic proportions,” said ICE Deputy Director Daniel Ragsdale said Tuesday at Newhart Middle School. “Increasingly, these incidents involve young people who are self-producing explicit images and sending them over the Internet.”
Last year alone, agents with Homeland Security Investigations logged nearly a million hours working child sexual exploitation cases, according to officials. They opened more than 4,000 investigations, including a probe announced last week targeting a child exploitation scheme operating on the Darknet’s Onion Router that identified more than 250 minors in the U.S. and around the globe who had been sexually exploited.
Five of the victims were teenage boys from Orange County who were contacted in online chat rooms, authorities said. Four of the victims were friends from Anaheim, and the fifth lived in San Clemente.
“(Sexual predators) are using trickery and deceit to get children to create sexually explicit images and provide them with stills or video on the Internet,” said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge for ICE.
The teenage boys thought they were sending explicit videos to an attractive 18-year-old woman, when in fact they were sending them to a sexual predator, he said.
“The purpose of the iGuardian program is to educate children and their parents to the relative ease with which these predators can come through the Internet, right into their house, right into their children’s bedroom, and victimize their children,” Arnold said. “We want to educate people before they become victims.”
The Orange County Child Exploitation Task Force receives 10 to 20 tips every week from citizens, Internet service providers and social media outlets, which are assigned to investigators, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said. The Internet, she said, has become the preferred playground for child sex predators.
“The Internet has enabled predators to exponentially capitalize on what they’ve been doing for years,” Hutchens said.
Students at Newhart Middle School watched a Project iGuardian presentation, which uses superhero-style characters and trading cards to give tips to both kids and parents on how to avoid falling prey to sexual predators online. Don’t share personal information. Know who you’re chatting with. Report suspected abuse.
“It was a good lesson for everyone to know that everything on the Internet is public and no matter how hard you try to keep it private, it’s always going to get out somehow,” said 7th grade student Katelyn Severance. “You can’t protect everything on the Internet because once it’s out there; it’s out there for good.”
The Project iGuardian presentation will be held upon request at schools and community organizations.
Hutchens said she hopes the presentations will lead parents to have a conversation with their children about the people who are using the Internet and might be trying to exploit them through social media.
By DENISSE SALAZAR / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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