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ONLINE PREDATORS: What the FBI wants you to know to protect your children

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(HOI) - With the help of technology, agencies have new routes to catch predators. However, the platforms your children might be using aren't always helping in that fight.

It was less than a year ago a FBI child sex sting operation led to the arrests of nine men in the Heart of Illinois, many accused of sending sexual messages and images to people they believed were minors.

"I know with the most recent sting in Peoria, parents see that and think 'oh my gosh that's going on in our community', that's the first thing that pops to mind, and you bet it is. It's going on in every community around the country," said US Attorney John Milhiser.

But on the other end of the phone in these cases was an FBI agent. The suspects ages ranged from 25 to 65-years-old. They all used platforms like SnapChat, Grindr, MeetMe and more to talk with kids and eventually try to meet them.

"I think what we see in the increase of the digital age on social media, unfortunately you have these platforms where predators have access to children where they normally wouldn't have," said Milhiser.

In 1998 there were over 3,000 reports of child sexual abuse imagery. A decade later, those reports soared pasted 100,000. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that last year, its cyber tipline received more than 18.4 million reports for things like child sexual abuse images, enticement, sex trafficking and child sexual molestation.

"Parenting in the digital age is incredibly difficult," said Milhiser.

U.S. Attorney John Milhiser says law enforcement has adapted with increasing cell phone capabilities, but the owners of these social platforms don't always hand over information easily, due to warrant proof encryption.

Encryption is used to protect your personal information, including conversations and even bank information, but FBI Special Agent says it can also create a roadblock for investigators trying to get evidence on predators.

"These platforms, as they keep building them and doing upgrades, the encryption keeps getting better and better in the platforms. So really, one of our greatest challenges is, and we talk about is, lawful access.. "
"We want to be able to go in there with those court orders, go to those companies and say release the information we're looking for, put it into a readable format, where you decrypt the information, right, that's lawful access," said Cox.

Milhiser wrote on op-ed last year about the dangers of warrant proof encryption, saying it's a threat to public safety, as it makes it more difficult for law enforcement to investigate cyber crimes. A few months later, Attorney General William Barr also railed against the encryption tools.

Jenise Rebholz reached out to several platforms to see how they're working to protect children from online predators, including Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Grindr, and MeetMe. Snapchat, which allows users as young as 13-years-old, was the only platform to respond but ultimately declined an interview about their policies and efforts to work with law enforcement.

"These individuals aren't hiding in the shadows, they're hiding in the shadows of the internet…. so it makes it far more complicated and it takes it time to do it," said Cox.

Cox says finding perpetrators is especially important because it can lead to other victims who may be too scared to speak up or fear for their safety.

"When you're working with one investigation it can branch off into other things, so when we identify a perpetrator… a lot of times when we identify that bad guy we can identify other victims," said Cox.

"There can be one perpetrator but there can be 10 other victims out there that we don't know about. So it allows us to access and identify these victims, and then go after these predators and get them off the streets," said Milhiser.

Both officials stressed the importance of talking with your kids about the dangers hiding on the internet and having an open dialogue.

"A lot of times what parents forget is that the moment you hand them that device, you've essentially just given the key to the world. They can drive anywhere they want, they can talk to anyone they want," said Cox. "Have a really open dialogue with your children, make sure you're talking with them a lot, that they're talking to you, that they're willing to share information with you so that if somebody approaches them on there that they tell you about it."

There are signs that your child may be in contact with a potential predator.

-Becomes secretive about online activities
-Becomes obsessive about being online
-Gets angry when he or she can’t get online
-Receives phone calls from people you do not know or makes calls to numbers that you do not recognize
-Receives gifts, mail, or packages from someone you do not know
-Withdraws from family and friends
-Changes screens or turns off computer when an adult enters a room
-Begins downloading pornography online

These examples from the internet safety group Enough is Enough.

How do you start the conversation about safe internet use with your children? Here are some tools:

Predators' Access to Kids

A Closer Look: Who Is At Risk?

Human Trafficking with Children and Adolescents

National Human Trafficking Hotline

Click here for the Facebook page of Jenise Rebholz.

Jenise Rebholz

Evening Anchor, Heart of Illinois ABC

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