The arrest of a 40-year-old Virginia man accused of traveling to California to kidnap a young girl last week is just the latest incident in a troubling trend.
Some D.C.-area communities are reporting dramatic increases in online predator investigations this year. Records obtained by News4 show the spike is linked to the pandemic and could grow worse.
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“Here in Frederick County, they’re reporting a 200% increase in cybercrime investigations this year, but it’s a trend we’re seeing region-wide,” said Charlie Smith, State's Attorney for Frederick County.
With schools closed and sports canceled, kids stuck at home have been more vulnerable to online criminals.
"There’s an increased presence online for kids," Smith said. "They're getting into things they shouldn’t be. It’s leading to bad things.”
Tips about cybercrimes to Maryland State Police nearly doubled this year. Montgomery County police reported a similar increase.
Case numbers jumped by hundreds in just three months for the Virginia State Police.
This weekend, one local case led to the arrest of Nathan Larson, a Fauquier County man who not only groomed a 12-year-old girl online but flew to California to persuade her to leave home with him, officials say.
Larson, who according to authorities is a known white supremacist and advocate for pedophilia, has also been accused of running a website with child sex exploitation materials.
Due to his “sophisticated” methods of grooming, California authorities warned there may be more victims.
The allegations are similar to an incident that happened 18 years ago this week in Fairfax County when an online predator lured and kidnapped 13-year-old Alicia Kozakiewicz from her home and held her captive.
Kozakiewicz is now a child safety advocate and says the risk for vulnerable children is rising.
Kozakiewicz operates a website with internet safety tips for parents and children.
“Children are scared, they’re angry, bored out of their minds, they’re lonely," Kozakiewicz said. "All of these are vulnerabilities predators look for.”
She says parents need to know passwords.
"You need to be able to pick up that phone anytime and go through it," she said.
Not only are cases growing, but so are hurdles for cops.
There is fear many incidents are going unreported with teachers and counselors who often detect problems not seeing kids due to virtual learning.
And, as Montgomery County police say, they’re stretched thin investigating this surge in crime with the same number of detectives.
"There’s another complication – court closures have slowed the handling of these cases," Smith said. "Here in Frederick County, there are no trials indefinitely.”