Authorities seeing increase in sexual predators targeting children online during pandemic

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (KABC) -- The number of sexual predators trolling the internet has exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities say.

The Riverside county district attorney's office said the number of cyber-tips they've investigated has nearly doubled when compared with last year.

"Kids are out of school, they're home, they're using the internet more," said Riverside county district attorney Mike Hestrin. "So this crime is proliferating."

Hestrin said his team doesn't have enough resources to fully investigate each and every tip that comes into his office.

"We could double the size of our team and we'd still be working as hard as we are," said supervising investigator Wade Walsvick of the Riverside County District Attorney's Office.

Walsvick said even the most protective parents don't realize some of the dangers their children face online.

"They'll quiz their child about going to the mall, who they're with, how long they're there," said Walsvick. "Yet they'll turn around and let them walk right up their stairs into their bedroom with their cell phone.

"And they just let the world into their kid's bedroom."

Walsvick said trouble typically starts with various chatting apps that children download on their phones, many of which can appear hidden to parents.

"There are hundreds and thousands of apps out there, and they pop up and go down every day."

But Walsvick said predators often lurk on video games that children are playing, and can chat with them that way.

"We recently had a case where the parents were, what we would think, relatively cautious and protective. The only online access was through a TV, through a game console," said Walsvick. "A 34-year old engaged (with the child) in a chat conversation within the game while sitting in front of her parents in the living room, and they didn't even know about it."

Walsvick said predators often go way beyond chatting, even taking part in something he calls "sextortion."

"They will convince a child to take an indecent picture or image, and then they own them," said Walsvick. "Every other day in here, there's some kind of case where a parent whose child comes to them in tears. God forbid it got sent out and it's going viral at a school."

But Walsvick said the ultimate goal is for predators to arrange meetings with children.

"They will drive, and sometimes fly, long distances to engage with a child they've been communicating with for quite some time."

Hestrin said his office now operates multiple teams dedicated to focusing on various aspects of the problems posed by online predators, including the Riverside county Sexual Assault Felony Enforcement (SAFE) team, and the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force.

His office also now has an electronics detection dog that's trained in sniffing out the scent of electronics devices that predators may hide inside their homes.

"Anything that can store digital media, there's a chemical compound on those devices to prevent the circuit board from overheating," said senior investigator Joel Pabelico. "So the dogs are specifically trained on that chemical compound."

But Hestrin said regardless of what his office does, the game has changed. And much of the responsibility still lies with parents.

"I want parents to understand that the technology has gotten ahead of our parenting skills here," said Hestrin. "And I'm not casting judgment, it's all of us. A lot of parents are not thinking through that if you've given your child a phone, you've also given the entire world access to your child behind a closed door.

"Parents have got to talk to their children about this and get more involved."
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