El Paso FBI SAC Emmerson Buie Jr. talks about the #ThinkBeforeYouPost campaign to curb hoax threats.
Daniel Borunda, El Paso Times
FBI officials are warning parents that sexual predators are targeting children through the increased use of technology.
The number of cases involving sexual predators targeting children online has increased as youths increasingly use the internet for school and other activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, FBI El Paso Supervisory Special Agent Minerva Shelton said.
“We’ve definitely noticed an increase of cases come in ever since the pandemic,” Shelton said. “Kids are spending more and more time online than before. We as parents used to think, ‘OK, is two hours a good time to let my kids be online? Three hours?’ And now we’re thinking, ‘OK, how long do we keep our kids online?’ Because it seems like they’re just constantly online.”
The internet plays a large role in children’s lives and the pandemic has increased that as youths also use it to socialize with friends.
“That’s how they (kids) socialize with other kids,” Shelton said. “However, one of the key things that we need to educate our kids is that just because somebody tells you on the other end that they’re a 14- or a 16-year-old little girl (or) little boy, it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s who they are.”
She added: “Perpetrators nowadays are obviously taking advantage of the fact that our kids are spending more time online and trying to lure them in different ways, whether it be through gaming applications or just any type of (social media apps). Grindr is another one that comes to mind.”
Shelton is part of the FBI’s Crimes Against Children unit, formerly known as the
Innocent Images Program, which has been around for 25 years and investigates sexual predators who try to lure children into meeting with them in person for sexual activities or to obtain nude images from the children.
More: FBI El Paso warns of COVID-19 vaccine scams, urges people to keep guard up
More: El Paso coronavirus update: City reports 566 new COVID-19 cases; deaths rise to 1,661
“Sextortion” is one of the more common incidents seen by the FBI in which sexual predators attempt to get nude photos of the child and then threaten to show the photo to the child’s parents or post it online. The threat is used to either get the child to send more photos or to meet with the predator in person for sexual acts.
“The minor who sends a photo of herself and then realizes that, ‘You know what, that wasn’t so smart; I’m not going to do it anymore,’ ” Shelton said. “But now you have the … perpetrator who’s acting to be a 16-year-old say, ‘Yeah, well if you don’t send me more photos, I am going to post these on Facebook. I’m going to send them to your family and friends.’ ”
She added, “So, now, me as a 14-year-old girl, I’m going to be embarrassed and, of course, now I’m going to go with your demands because I’m going to try to stop you from sending those photos.”
Shelton said criminals also are using dating apps such as Grindr to meet young boys and lure them to meet in person.
“A lot of young boys are using that application,” Shelton said. “They’re having conversations with other adult men, and then now they’re coordinating, ‘Let’s meet; I’ll pick you up from your house. Let’s go to a park.’ And then the kids are sexually exploited.”
More: FBI investigates El Pasoans who might have participated in US Capitol insurrection
More: FBI in El Paso intensifies efforts as Inauguration Day nears, urges reporting of threats
Parents need to be vigilant in making sure who their children are talking to and which photos they are sending to other people.
Shelton urged parents to always have their children’s passwords, to stay on top of what their children are doing online and to talk to their kids about the dangers online.
“You need to tell the parents that they need to be more involved in the kids’ lives, share these stories with them, whether indirectly or directly,” Shelton said. “One thing that a parent can do right is go through your kids’ phones. I know to kids that’s like an extension of them now. They don’t want to share their phones with you, but that is one key thing that we need to do. Another thing that I’ve always had a rule with my son is that, ‘OK, fine, you have a password because you want to protect your stuff, but I need to know that password,’ and I should be able to walk up there, put that password in, and the phone should open up.”
Parents need to always check on their children’s phones to stop any threats immediately, Shelton said.
“One thing that we need to teach parents is to have that password and always do a quick check and see if you see anything there,” Shelton said. “Just stay involved.”
Shelton said there are several apps parents can download to monitor their children’s activities.
More: FBI arrests El Paso man accused in death threats against Congress, Trump
More: El Paso FBI organized crime task force makes its largest liquid meth seizure
Several major cellphone service providers offer phone applications and other tools for parents to monitor their children’s internet and text messaging usage.
The FBI sees cases involving children of all ages, including as young as 5 years old to 16 years old, Shelton said.
The FBI investigated more than 3,000 cases across the country in the last fiscal year. The FBI’s efforts resulted in the arrest of 2,000 individuals and identified 1,400 victims, Shelton said.
Numbers for the El Paso area were not available as sexual predators use the internet to reach children all over the country.
“So, let’s say we get a case involving an individual with a minor,” Shelton said. “And it turns out that this individual is a 40-year-old. So, now we’ve investigated this 40-year-old from El Paso communicating with a victim here. Well, now we execute a search warrant, get his cellphones and computers and now we realize, wait a minute, this individual has been communicating with another 16-year-old or 14-year-old from Oklahoma (or) New Mexico. And so it just goes everywhere.”
Cases also might be high in the El Paso area due to the city’s size and with Fort Bliss being one of the largest military bases in the country, Shelton said.
Parents can report sexual predators by calling the FBI’s National Threat Operations Center at 1-800-225-5324 or the FBI El Paso Division Office at 915-832-5000.
Parents are urged to take screenshots and save any other evidence of the interactions their children had with the sexual predator so the evidence can be turned over to law enforcement.
Aaron Martinez may be reached at 915-546-6249; email@example.com; @AMartinezEPT on Twitter.