HONOLULU (KHON2) — Experts said all it takes is a simple online message for criminals to target children.
“It’s a friend request, it’s a nice compliment, it doesn’t seem like a stranger,” said Jessica Munoz, Ho’ola Na Pua Founder and CEO.
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Officials said online predators don’t come off as the usual suspects.
“The subjects are criminals on the other end of the line and are acting in another role,” said Steven Merill, FBI Honolulu Special Agent in Charge. “They pretend to be another child when in fact they’re an adult and they’re trying to get these kids involved in something that they really shouldn’t.”
Ho’ola Na Pua offers services to victims of sex trafficking and exploitation. The organization said one out of three people said technology led to their sex trafficking experience. The average age when this happens is 11.
“That’s what kids are longing for is connection, and if we don’t have something healthy for them to connect to, they’ll end up connected to somebody who wants to exploit,” said Munoz.
On top of monitoring children’s electronic devices, experts say parents should also look out for behavioral warnings signs including depression, eating disorders, mood swings, or academic decline. Ho’ola Na Pua said creating a safe space to talk about the issue is just as important.
“They might start to feel shame,” Munoz said. “I think it’s important for parents to approach the subject pretty directly. Did you know that there are people out there who might contact you online who don’t have the best of intentions, right? They can be somebody who doesn’t seem like a scary person.”
Law enforcement is reassuring the public that they’re also working behind closed doors. The Attorney General’s International Crimes Against Children Task Force has arrested more than 60 people through its Keiki Shield Operation over the last three years.
“If you think that we’re not out there, we are out there,” said Edward Arias, ICAC Commander of Hawaii. “I want the public to know that the next time you contact a 13-year-old girl or boy, it’s probably one of our agents that you’re talking to and you’re going to jail.”
Experts say it takes everyone’s cooperation and effort to keep Hawaii’s keiki safe.
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“We can end this, but we have to be diligent,” Munoz added. “We have to be willing to crack down on it. We have to put those who are exploiting and those who are buying. They have to get in trouble and be held accountable.”