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N4T Investigators: Reports of online predators surge during pandemic

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TUCSON (KVOA) - Since the pandemic began, authorities report a huge spike in the number of criminal cases involving kiddie porn, and attempts to lure children for sexual exploitation.

With the pandemic putting us on lockdown, kids are spending more time online. 

Police reports show so are child predators. 

News 4 Tucson Investigators found just how bad the situation is in our community, and what it could mean for our kids. 

“What most parents don't realize is, their kid can be talking to a predator right in front of their face,” Lisa Hansen, with Power over Predators told the News 4 Tucson Investigators.

Hansen, a sex-trafficking survivor, has been taking her group's safety message to nearly 60,000 Pima County students over the past few years.

However, with kids now out of the classroom and attending school virtually, the youngest victims of predators are defenseless, as students spend less time in the real world, and more time in the online one.

“We need human interaction, so it's going to drive kids and people to other individuals on the internet naturally to talk,” said Pima County Sheriff's Department Deputy Ryan Inglett told the News 4 Tucson Investigators.

The numbers are staggering.

Between January and September of this year, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported a 98% increase in the number of reports of online predators.  

No child is immune from the threat.

“Your child can post a picture of themselves, innocent, completely innocent picture of themselves on Instagram and within minutes, and I do mean within minutes, they will be contacted by a predator," Hansen told the News 4 Tucson Investigators.

Making matters worse, some well-intentioned people who think they are helping victims of child predators could actually be doing more harm than good.

“When they see an image or a video containing child sexual abuse material, they share it because maybe they're trying to help the child that's seen in those files or the image or video, but really what they're doing is re-victimizing that child,” said Lindsey Olsen, with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Since kids are spending more time online, the number of cases of 'sextortion' has also surged, and the perpetrators are getting younger.

“We're definitely seeing a bigger increase in teens being the predators, because they're the teens that are threatening other teens with these images,” Hansen said. "If you don't do what I want, then you know, I'm going to show the whole school or your family, or what have you."

The bottom-line is that child predators have access to their victims now more than ever.

It is critical that parents know how their kids spend time online, and that they have tools to protect themselves.

“Let your kids know - here are the signs of a predator," Hansen said. "Here are some key things that predators say: it will be between you and me, this will be our little secret, nobody's ever going to know."

Deputy Inglett tells the News 4 Tucson Investigators, it's important that parents communicate with their kids, and be proactive in keeping an eye out for their safety.

“We can't be afraid of looking at what our kids are doing, and going through their phones to ensure that what they are doing is safe.” Deputy Inglett said.

Local law enforcement agencies are looking into several possible child predator cases, and potential arrests could be made just days from now.

We'll keep you posted, as those investigations move forward.

If you have something you'd like the News 4 Tucson investigators to look into, email us at investigators@kvoa.com or call the News 4 Tucson Investigators tip-line at 520-955-4444.

Paul Birmingham

Paul Birmingham is an Investigative Producer for KVOA News 4 Tucson. He is a three time Edward R. Murrow award winner, native Tucsonan, and a proud Arizona Wildcat.

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