Tracking predators: Children more at risk online during pandemic

Shawne Wickham, The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester
·8 min read

Apr. 11—Add one more to the list of threats parents need to worry about from the ongoing health crisis.

With youngsters spending more time online, experts say, criminals who prey on children have found new opportunities.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, reports of child exploitation rose sharply last year.

"With COVID, you had a lot of children at home who wouldn't normally be home," said Lindsey Olson, executive director of NCMEC's exploited children division. More adults were home as well, she said, so "there were increased opportunities for offenders to take advantage of children."

NCMEC is the clearinghouse for a national cyber tip line (1-800-THE-LOST) that last year received a record 21.7 million reports, up 27% from the previous year. Most tips involved the possession, distribution or manufacture of child sexual abuse materials, or CSAM.

Reports of online "enticement" of children nearly doubled in 2020 from the previous year, Olson said.

Portsmouth police Lt. Eric Kinsman, commander of the statewide Internet Crimes Against Children task force, said New Hampshire has seen "a dramatic increase" in cyber tips from NCMEC.

Before the pandemic, Kinsman said, the task force dealt with 40 to 50 cyber tips a month. That has climbed to 80 to 90 tips a month.

Kinsman speaks frequently with his ICAC counterparts from around the country. "There's a definite consensus that COVID has had a direct impact on the number of cases that we're seeing, and that has everything to do with the fact that our teenagers, our kids, are in front of their screens more," he said.

New meet-up apps are being developed every day, Kinsman said. "It's well beyond Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat," he said. "There are hundreds of them."

Those who prey on children, he said, "know what chat rooms to go to, they know what apps to use."

Offenders come from all walks of life, from college students to professionals, experts say.

"It can be anyone," Olson said. "Oftentimes, they'll have access to children. They'll put themselves in positions where they'll have access to children in real life, but really and truly it can be anyone."

Last month, a 19-year-old Lempster man who worked as an elementary school janitor was charged with possession of child sexual abuse images. Authorities said Christopher Ferland was arrested after a search of his digital devices turned up images of violent sexual assaults against infants, toddlers and very young children.

Police also found a bag containing rope, zip ties and duct tape in his home, officials said.

In February, a former teacher at Concord High School and Southern New Hampshire University, 36-year-old Joshua Harwood of Manchester, was arrested on multiple felony charges, including allegedly soliciting sexually explicit videos and images from a child under 18 in exchange for money.

A 72-year-old Manchester man, an 18-year-old Sandown man, a 20-year-old Hooksett man, a 62-year-old Nashua woman and a 37-year-old Grantham man all were arrested in recent months for possession and/or distribution of child sexual abuse materials.

The electronic trail

Predators may think they can hide behind the anonymity of the internet. But every image or video has a unique signature, called a hash value, that NCMEC analysts can use to determine where it came from and where it was sent, Kinsman said.

If that IP address is in New Hampshire, NCMEC sends a report to Kinsman, who reviews the information and sends it to the appropriate police department to investigate. Each county also has trained ICAC investigators who act as "area leads" to help smaller departments do that work.

Most tips that NCMEC receives — more than 21.4 million in 2020 — come from electronic service providers. Companies such as Facebook, Microsoft and Google are required by federal law to report CSAM posted on their platforms.

Although companies are not required to look for such materials proactively, NCMEC's Olson said, "I will tell you many of them do that voluntarily."

"Many of them use technology to locate this type of content on their system. They remove it and then they report it to the cyber tip line."

It's not only companies raising the alarm. Tips from the public have more than doubled, from around 150,000 in 2019 to more than 303,000 last year, according to NCMEC.

Olson encourages parents to have ongoing, age-appropriate conversations with their children about being safe online, and to use parental controls on any electronic devices that children are using to connect to the internet.

"We need our kids to know they can turn to us and we're going to be there to support them," she said.

It's a felony

There are federal laws against child sexual abuse materials, and under New Hampshire law, it is a felony to possess, distribute or manufacture "any visual representation of a child engaging in or being engaged in sexually explicit conduct."

For a first-time offender, possession of such materials carries the potential for 7 1/2 to 15 years in state prison. A first offense for distribution can mean 10 to 20 years, and subsequent offenses add more prison time.

Conviction also means registering as a sex offender for life.

Nicole Thorspecken, an assistant county attorney for Hillsborough County who heads the county's cybercrime unit, works with police investigators to prepare search warrants. In her experience, most people who are charged with possession or distribution of CSAM end up pleading guilty, she said.

Many parents give their kids cellphones so they can stay in touch with them, without realizing the potential danger, Thorspecken said.

Predators know the sites where kids are likely to hang out, she said. "They can talk to kids for months and just make friends and make that child feel special," she said.

Youngsters sometimes send sexualized photos of themselves to friends or strangers without understanding the risks, she said. "The message for kids is once that picture is out of your hand, the minute you've sent it, you have no control over what happens with that photo anymore or that video," she said.

NCMEC's Olson said children are often afraid to tell their parents if something inappropriate happens online.

"They don't want their parents to take their phone away or take away their access to their video game, or they think that they're going to get in trouble," she said. "We need our kids to know they can turn to us and we're going to be there to support them."

Lifetime trauma

Most people would rather not think about such crimes, investigators say.

"It's hard to accept that people do this to children," said the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department's Fleming, an area lead for ICAC. "But if we don't talk about it, educate kids, educate parents, and support law enforcement's mission on this, we don't stop it."

There's no end "to the level of depravity when it comes to internet predators," said Fleming, a father of two. "I don't think they have a limit to what they're willing to do."

Such crimes are "beyond reprehensible," prosecutor Thorspecken said.

"It's capturing this kid at probably the worst moment or moments in their lives and then capitalizing off that by trading it with people on the internet for your sexual pleasure," she said. "It's a sexual assault that's traded for people's amusement and pleasure, and it's the exploitation of children."

As a policy, she said, her agency does not keep CSAM images from cases on office computers. Instead, she goes to the investigating police departments to review evidence in such cases.

"We treat the image as if it's a bag of heroin," she said. "We treat it like contraband, because I think that's the most respectful thing we can do."

The victims in these cases suffer lifelong trauma, NCMEC's Olson said.

"Long after the abuse has ended, their imagery is still out there, and it can be 10, 15, 20, 30 years down the road and their content is still being traded by offenders and shared," she said. "And that fear of people recognizing them is real."

"Once it's out there, it's always out there, and you can never get that back," she said. "That privacy is gone and that's why, I think, this is such a horrible crime."

swickham@unionleader.com

To report suspected child sexual abuse material, contact the NCMEC Cyber Tipline: 1-800-THE-LOST or cybertipline.org

Resources for kids and families:

—National Center for Missing and Exploited Children offers an online safety education resources at: www.missingkids.org/netsmartz/home

—www.safekidspro.com

—www.netsmartzkids.org

—www.internetsafety101.org

—Parent groups or organizations can request an ICAC presentation on internet safety at www.nhicac.org.