"We're down detectives, and right now we should be fat with investigators to manage the amount of work that's coming in," said Detective Paula Meares, a unit supervisor.
LAPD spokesman Josh Rubenstein said the department has been forced to "shift precious resources" to the coronavirus crisis, but remains "deeply committed to identifying and bringing to justice anyone that would victimize a child."
"While it is a challenge to keep up with the many clues we are given regarding these troubling offenses, we are accomplishing that task and look forward to the day we can shift our resources back to their original roles," he said.
Alicia Kozakiewicz, an internet safety expert and advocate for children who survived being abducted nearly two decades ago, said the increased activity is sadly predictable. Children are more vulnerable at the moment because they, like all of us, feel isolated, and predators know it, she said.
"Right now children have no other social outlet, and they are experiencing a wide range of emotions," Kozakiewicz, 32, said. "What a predator does is they search for those vulnerabilities, they find them, and then they exploit them."
Offenders lurk on Facebook and Instagram, but also lesser-known chat sites and gaming platforms, sharing images and videos already in their possession but also soliciting new material from young victims. Kids coerced into sending one inappropriate picture or video are often blackmailed into sending more explicit content, officials said.
In recent weeks, would-be predators have been observed on the dark web discussing the stay-at-home orders and how they might target kids who are increasingly going online for their education, entertainment and social interactions, Shehan said. Those who normally traffic children for sex have seen customers lose interest in physical encounters and have shifted to soliciting and selling explicit images of children online.
Others are contributing to the spread inadvertently. Several videos have gone viral, resulting in scores of tips, in part because people horrified by the content have shared them in an attempt to alert others and bring a stop to the abuse, Shehan said.
Victims range from teenagers to toddlers and infants, law enforcement officials and other experts said.
Internet companies mandated to monitor and report such activity on their platforms say they are doing everything they can to responsibly oversee content, immediately removing illegal images and alerting law enforcement to those responsible for it. But there has long been concern among child advocacy groups and law enforcement officials that the processes aren't robust enough.