Pandemic, social media lead to major surge in reports of online child exploitation

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- State investigators are reporting a record number of tips received related to online exploitation and pornography affecting children and teenagers.

According to the State Bureau of Investigation, its Computer Crimes Unit could see up to 12,000 reports involving adults pressuring minors to produce sexually explicit photos or videos by the end of this year, the most ever.

"We saw historic numbers during a historic time," Kevin Roughton, Special Agent in Charge at the SBI's Computer Crimes Unit, said. "Kids were online in school. That never really happened before on a widespread basis. People were working from home. There literally more people online at the same time than any time in the history of the world. That led to more opportunity for child victimization."

The tips about the exploitation and pornography are first reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children based in Alexandria, Virginia. That agency then relays those tips to members of the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force, of which the North Carolina SBI is a member. Detectives at the SBI analyze those tips, file subpoenas for things like IP addresses and begin a forensic investigation, then relay that information further down the chain to local police departments and sheriff's offices.

The tips, moreover, are primarily being reported by social media companies and internet service providers, which are required by law to report communications indicating that a minor may be in danger of sexual exploitation.

"The vast majority of reports come from Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, Microsoft, Google, TikTok. If you can think of a tech name they're probably reporting cyber tips," Roughton said. "The tips we get from the platforms are very reliable. The information they provide is very accurate and ultimately they don't want that stuff on their network."

"An unlimited number of victims"

Indeed, children today are as adept at learning how to use an Apple iPad as they are learning the difference between apples and oranges. Millennials, meanwhile, while certainly fluent in technology now, had also had that same sense of discovery even if they were a bit older the first time they were introduced to the internet.

"I remember when I was in school my friends started to say 'I am this and I am that,' and I said, 'You're what?' I then realized it was 'IM' - instant messaging," Alicia Kozak recalled. "That's what it was for me. It was my first introduction to the internet as a way to be with your friends and be social."

Kozak said the instant messaging and chatrooms enabled her to be less shy and more outgoing, and in one chatroom she connected with someone she thought was a teenage boy.

"It was music, what else I'm interested in and bands and my favorite subjects," Kozak said of the conversations. "It was questions. Innocent questions."

The innocent questions, however, were cover for malicious intent. On Jan. 1, 2002, the 13-year-old Kozak left her home to meet the teenage boy. She was only a block away when her life changed forever.

"I turned around but it was too late. Next thing I was in car and this man was squeezing my hand so tightly that I thought I broke it. He began commanding things, be quiet the trunk is cleaned out for you, and I saw in the backseat a bag with ropes with various things in it."

Kozak was kidnapped, chained, tortured and sexually assaulted -- all on live stream. It took four days, but a viewer tipped off police, who traced the digital footprint to the 38-year-old suspect's address and stormed the house.

Almost 20 years has passed since Kozak's abduction; there's been immeasurable growth for her but also incredible advancements in technology.

"I do believe there are more predators then they were in the past because it's easier to get caught up in an obsession," Kozak said. "There's also really an unlimited number of victims. You don't need to be kidnapped to be held captive. A child can send a photo of themselves and now this person owns them."

Parents' Responsibilities

Today, Kozak is an acclaimed motivational speaker whose presentations are happening virtually and in-person. In fact, after her visit with ABC11, she met with SBI investigators and other ICAC members for a training session in Greenville. Though her programs include strategies for law enforcement, there's also a considerable emphasis on how to better educate parents and encourage a more robust defense against cyber crimes that starts at home.

"We teach our kids to look both ways before they cross the street. We teach them not to touch the pot because it's hot. We teach them not to put that fork in the electrical outlet. We teach them those things because it's dangerous," Kozak said. "It's not about fear. It's about empowerment. On the internet, your kids are alone, and it really is their choice."

At the SBI, Special Agent Roughton wholeheartedly agreed.

"We lock our doors, we lock our windows to protect our kids from strangers, but we give them a device and tell them to spend hours on it talking to strangers," Roughton said. "There's a disconnect there that has to be resolved. The device has become the babysitter and that is problematic."

Below are tips for parents/guardians:

  • Parents must frequently communicate with their kids about who they interact with online and talk to them about what is and what isn't acceptable online behavior.
  • Parents should also warn their kids about the dangers of sharing inappropriate photos and videos.
  • Also, be sure to check their phones every now and then to see what apps they have and how they're using them.
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