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Online child sex abuse reports surge as kids spend more time on computers amid coronavirus

Kevin Rector, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- Law enforcement officials across the country have been overwhelmed in recent months by a surge in tips about online child sex abuse, with social media platforms and other service providers flagging explicit content and suspicious interactions at an alarming rate.

With schools closed, youth activities canceled and kids spending more time online under stay-at-home orders related to the coronavirus pandemic, sexual predators have ramped up their efforts to solicit pictures and videos, officials say.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a global clearinghouse that disseminates tips to law enforcement, took in 4.1 million reports of child cyberabuse in April, a fourfold increase over April 2019, said John Shehan, head of the center's exploited children division.

In March, the center received more than 2 million reports, more than double what it received in March 2019.

The surge has slowed in May, Shehan said, but the volume has remained above average.

"It was definitely a huge increase compared to the year prior, and has put a huge strain on law enforcement around the world, who are dealing with a pandemic and all of these reports coming in at the same time," Shehan said.


The Los Angeles Police Department's Internet Crimes Against Children unit, which processes tips from Shehan's organization for five counties before referring them to local agencies, received nearly 3,000 tips in April, up from 1,355 in March, said Lt. Anthony Cato, the unit commander.

More than half the tips fell under the LAPD's jurisdiction.

Still, two of the unit's four investigators were recently redeployed to a special coronavirus task force helping find shelter for people in need. That has hampered the unit's ability to respond just as reports spiked.

Investigations have continued -- the unit makes about three arrests a month -- but there's a growing backlog of tips to review, officials said.


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