An online sting operation in Northern Virginia has resulted in the arrests of 30 men charged with trolling the Internet to solicit sex from minors, authorities said Tuesday.
Fairfax County police called the sting Operation COVID Crackdown. They said school closures and stay-at-home orders to combat the coronavirus have increased children's online presence and their vulnerability to exploitation along with it.
Police said Tuesday the men who were arrested went online to initiate explicit conversations and solicit sex from police officers posing as children. Each of the suspects agreed to meet their targets in person at specified locations. Detectives arrested the men when they showed up.
The men ranged in age from 20 to 74, and are facing a combined 68 felonies. Most of those charged live in Northern Virginia, but some came from Maryland, West Virginia and D.C.
"Our detectives have remained vigilant and they recognized the increased threat posed by online predators in recent weeks," said Ed O’Carroll, commander of the department's major crimes bureau. "I commend their ability to adapt during this unprecedented public health pandemic."
O’Carroll says the arrests should send a clear signal to parents that they need to be especially vigilant about monitoring their kids’ online activity.
"The parents need to know the platforms, be proactive," he said.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has resources to educate elementary-aged children about potential online predators.
"We’ve certainly seen an increase in reports of online exploitation of children," said Eliza McCoy, director of outreach and prevention for NCMEC.
McCoy says it’s tough for parents to keep watch if they are tied up in a zoom meeting or a conference call while the kids are online at the same time.
"So we talk about adapting to hopping in between conference calls, hopping in on your breaks. As they use new platforms, sit down next to them and try them as well," she said.
She said learning security or parental controls on devices and apps is also key.
For information and free resources on preventing child exploitation, or to report online exploitation, visit the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's website.