Internet crimes against children on the rise

JACKSON — Internet crimes against children, ranging from sexual abuse and trafficking to distributing pornography, are on the rise nationally and statewide.

”We are busier than we’ve ever been in the history of Wyoming,” said Chris McDonald, special agent of the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation and commander of the Internet Crimes Against Children task force since early 2019.

McDonald receives and investigates all tips in Wyoming, from undercover operations to phone-in tips and all reporting that social media sites are required to share if they detect what they believe to be child pornography or child exploitation material. Legally, companies such as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram must report exploitative materials of minors to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

This reporting from social media sites is where most of McDonald’s work comes from, and the number of tips ICAC has received has skyrocketed in the last five years.

“In 2019, when I started, we had 263 tips total for the year,” McDonald said. “In COVID during 2020, we had exponential growth with 520 tips.”

That increased again in 2021 with 617 tips. For a small organization of six investigators (10 total with help from part-time, local and federal partners), the increase has been unprecedented. For McDonald, the reason for the rise in tips isn’t simply fallout from a global pandemic.

“The COVID impact is at least partially true,” McDonald said. “People are home. We also had a lot more children at home and on the internet. The reporting increased greatly. But the reporting has also increased because the technology to identify child exploitation material means we’re seeing so much more reporting as well.”

Terri Markham is the co-founder and executive director of Uprising, a Sheridan-based nonprofit that’s focused on the prevention and education around exploitation and trafficking. Markham has seen the desensitization of these issues in the youth she talks to.

“When we work with youth ages 12+ we utilize anonymous surveys,” Markham said. “Twenty-five to 45% of youth report that they engage in sending nude photos or being propositioned on the internet. It’s just a normal piece of life for them, it’s a normal occurrence, it’s the access to technology they have.”

Markham and McDonald have seen that beginning these conversations at the middle school level is too late.

“It’s getting more dangerous at earlier and earlier ages,” Markham said. “In late elementary and middle school is where we’re seeing huge changes in what kids are accessing at that age.”

Markham noted one area in particular that youth at that age are already grappling with: “sextortion.” Sextortion involves an individual threatening to release a compromising video or photo.

“One of our first semesters this year, we had a group of 30 youth at a local middle school, and three of them personally disclosed to us that they already experienced sextortion,” Markham said. “So at 12 or 13, we were reaching them too late.”

McDonald also goes into classrooms for prevention efforts, and echoed Markham’s statement about the widespread normalization.

“We’ve started focusing on late elementary, fifth and sixth grade,” McDonald said. “When I ask those kids ‘Have you ever had to block anybody?’ I spoke to well over 1,500 students last year, and over 90% of those kids all said, ‘Yes, I’ve had to block somebody.’ ”

One of the most popular platforms to communicate is Snapchat. McDonald has seen predators add an entire friend group of minors on these platforms, and when a minor sees that they have mutual friends in common, they’re more likely to accept their request.

McDonald offers a simple rule of thumb: If you don’t know that person in real life, don’t add them. Sometimes it’s someone the child doesn’t know, sometimes it is.

“I understand because I’m old, no matter how much I practice with technology, I’ll never be as good at it as my kid,” McDonald said. “No matter what app your child has, you should also have that app and know how to use it. Always know the username and passwords of all your kids’ accounts. For safety, that’s very important. There are also a lot of parent oversight apps for your phone, like Norton or Bark, that you can install so you can see what’s going on, on that phone.”

Looking ahead, McDonald expects that the number of tips will increase again this year. ICACs across the board nationally have experienced the same explosion in work, he said. However, McDonald and Markham are seeing positives. Both are seeing public outcry increasing and their requests for prevention training surging.

“Awareness efforts in the state seem to be working,” Markham said, and “we at Uprising on the prevention side are busier than ever for youth programming, parents and caregiver training, educating professionals who work with youth … so people are trying to stay ahead of it.”

For further education, anyone can reach out to Uprising and request a parents’ night or an education event in their community. Uprising gives parents more tools and tangible ways to start those conversations with their youth.


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