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Local officers join district attorney in caution to parents about online sexual predators
Lurking in the shadows of the pandemic is a crisis – the online exploitation of children.
For much of 2020 and the summer months, children were stuck at home due to school shutdowns from the pandemic, and online sexual predators have been quick to take advantage, according to officers investigating predators’ behavior.
During the coronavirus lockdown, children’s lives shifted into a virtual world from video calls with friends and family to educational use. Sex offenders found the opportunity to access a broader group of potential victims.
“They know the kids are online and these predators are posing as students as well,” Frio County Chief Deputy Peter Salinas said.
In light of recent events, the chief deputy was prompted to look into cases in which predators have lured children online, cases that the Frio County Sheriff’s Office has been investigating.
“It is definitely more prevalent,” Salinas says. “Predators are preying on these children who are stuck at home and on their computers.”
Men and women will befriend a child and spend months manipulating them into sending provocative photos or in extreme cases meeting them at a secluded location, the chief deputy added.
Salinas describes the cases as an alarming byproduct of pandemic-triggered shutdowns and said he believes the children are being sexually exploited online.
Frio County has seen several cases in which predators pretend to be romantically interested and request nude or provocative photos. In an effort to gain their victim’s trust, the predator may send fake photos of themselves.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, staff received 30,236 reports of possible online enticement during the first nine months of 2020.
Traditionally, the annual average of online luring cases handled by the center is approximately 16,000.
As a parent, the chief deputy says parents can have a false sense of security when their children are home all the time. He encourages parents to be vigilant and frequently check the history of internet searches and sites on their children’s electronic devices.
“Investigate and approve any online games, applications,” Salinas advises parents. “Centrally locate digital devices and keep children in sight when online; engage security tools and privacy features; review your child’s search history; know who your child chats online with; educate yourself about what to do if someone tries to exploit them.”
Salinas added that parents should identify other trusted adults and should develop a relationship with their children that allows them to share freely what they are doing online.
“Avoid being punitive or judgmental, so your child will feel comfortable discussing their online activity with you,” the chief deputy said.
During the pandemic the online access predators had to children was worsened by a disconnect among many parents who continue to view strangers out in public as the larger threat, internet specialist Joe Dugan says, adding that online predators are masters at manipulating children.
Police say many of the victims are ‘tweens’ who seek affirmation of beauty and the desire to fit in with the popular crowd.
“Many of these children also fall victim to peer pressure to send nude photos,” Dugan says. “Then the photos are shared and the victim is humiliated.”
Student-to-student dissemination of sexually explicit photos begins in middle school, according to Dugan, and online predators behave the same way.
“They spend months reassuring their victim they are the most beautiful person on Earth, all in an effort to get their victim to send photos,” he adds. “Children are vulnerable.”
Investigators have reported that predators may pose as teens themselves and initiate explicit sexual conversations, ultimately convincing their victims to meet them for sex. Locations for those meetings range from hotel rooms to their own homes, the chief deputy says.
“They will persuade their victim to send one inappropriate photo, then blackmail them into sending more photos or even money,” Salinas added.
District Attorney Audrey Louis agrees with Salinas and encourages parents to have conversations with their children about online predators.
“Parents need to talk to their children about not talking online to people they do not know,” the district attorney says. “Explaining that people online may not be who they say they are is always an important reminder.”
Louis is strong in her position of warning children never to send photos or personal information to people they do not know.
“It is a scary time for our children,” Louis says. “Children are naturally trusting and there are monsters on the internet trying to hunt them down and take advantage of them.”