State and federal agents are handling a rapidly soaring number of child exploitation and pornography cases, according to an investigation by the News4 I-Team.
Maryland State Police, Virginia State Police and FBI field offices have experienced a 50 percent spike in such cases in recent months, some of it attributed to the pervasiveness of cellphones among adolescent girls.
The fast-rising workload is also stretching resources and pulling some state police troops away from investigations of fraud, extortion and other electronic crimes requiring forensics and undercover field work, the I-Team learned.
The I-Team, which spent 12 months compiling police incident reports and federal court complaints, found Maryland State Police investigated 1,682 electronic or computer crimes in 2014, a sudden and sharp increase from the 1,063 investigations completed in 2013.
The agency’s computer crimes unit uses a heavily secured lab at a state office in Howard County to conduct analysis on hardware linked to child pornography investigations. Computer crimes unit troopers, speaking with the News4 I-Team, said their investigations have quickly grown more sophisticated and complex because of rapidly changing and increasingly large hardware and computer drives used by predators.
“The explosion of technology fueled by the Internet has been exploited by criminals involved in child pornography, human trafficking and other related crimes to expand their enterprise and increase their activities,” Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley said.
The rapid increase in computer-based child exploitation forced the agency to shift resources from other criminal investigations, Shipley said.
“State Police computer crimes investigators spend much of their time working investigations related to child exploitation due to the large number of cases, leaving less time to investigate the array of other computer generated crimes, such as theft, fraud and extortion,” he said.
Virginia State Police, which helps operate a child crimes task force with the Washington Field Office of the FBI, also experienced a spike in child exploitation investigations. The I-Team’s review found the agency undertook 745 investigations of suspected child exploitation last year, a 50 percent increase from 2013.
The Baltimore Field Office of the FBI deploys undercover agents to investigate and capture child predators. Special Agent Michael Mizer said the increasingly widespread distribution of cellphones among younger girls and boys is potentially driving the increase in cases.
“They’ve got a constant hook in them, when they’ve got that cellphone,” Mizer said. “We need the assistance of parents. They’re the front line of defense against these predators.”
An undercover FBI agent, with whom the I-Team spoke on the condition of anonymity, said child sex predators are tracking down cellphone numbers of younger girls and boys and asking the girls and boys to send inappropriate pictures via text message or social media.
“(Predators) can be very secretive,” the agent said. “They use a lot of different tools to conceal themselves online. If it’s an easy platform to chat and exchange images (with children), that’s what they’re going to use.”
Anne Arundel County mother Andrea Briggs said a suspected predator tracked down the cellphone number of her 10-year-old daughter. Her daughter received graphic and sexually suggestive text messages from an unknown phone number, Briggs said.
“It just kept getting more and more graphic,” she said.
At one point in the text message exchange, according to Briggs, the suspected predator began sending graphic pictures.
Briggs said police were unable to launch an investigation into who was making the solicitations.
“I had a sinking feeling in my stomach, because how many little girls are out there answering those messages,” she said.
Maryland State Sen. Susan Lee said the legislature must consider increasing its funding for Maryland State Police and its computer crimes division.
“It’s a top funding priority of our state budget,” Lee said. “We have to deal with this. We can’t just direct money at the old types of crimes.”
Lee said the state would also attempt to win more federal funding to combat child exploitation.
“These (cellphone) devices were supposed to improve our quality of life,” she said. “But they’re also exposing kids to a myriad of dangers.”
Tips for Parents With Children Who Use Cellphones (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children):
- Unintentional Sharing of Geolocation Data: Most smartphones have GPS technology which allows the user’s precise location to be pinpointed by apps and on websites. Social networking sites such as FourSquare, GoWalla, and Facebook take advantage of this technology by encouraging their users to “check-in” or share their locations. A “check-in” can be shared with a list of friends, so make sure you know who is on your child’s friends list before allowing them to use this type of technology. Children also may share their locations unintentionally through pictures taken with their smartphones; these photos often have geolocation data embedded in them. Consider disabling the location services on smartphones before allowing children to post photos online.
- Playing a Role in Grooming: Predators also know and take advantage of the fact that cell phones let them talk with their victims at any time. They are also aware that parents and guardians often forget to monitor children’s cell phones. Predators may send children cell phones and ask them to keep the phones a secret. They can then talk to and exchange text messages and pictures with children without close monitoring by parents and guardians. Others may ask children for their cell phone numbers after meeting them online or try to connect with willing children by sending texts to random numbers.