Online sexual predators eager to take advantage of greater access to kids during COVID-19, police warn
Reports of child exploitation to Cybertip.ca up 40 per cent in recent weeks
Police are warning parents across Canada that in dark corners of the internet, sexual predators are talking among themselves about how children are home all day, every day and spending more time online because of the pandemic — and they are eager to take advantage.
With schools and playgrounds closed and extracurricular activities cancelled, kids are heading to the internet for their classes and to pass the time. They're logging on to play games, connect with friends and check the latest posts on Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram.
"Offenders are talking amongst themselves. They are talking about increased access to kids during this time where kids are getting a lot more screen time," said Sgt. Arnold Guerin, who works in the RCMP's National Child Exploitation Crime Centre.
Police say predators are using sophisticated techniques to connect with young people wherever they can find them online, and in some cases, they impersonate a youth around the victim's age. Predators draw them into sexually explicit conversations and convince some youth to share photos and videos.
Some of these predators call themselves "cappers" because they capture those images and share them with each other or use them for their own sexual purposes. They might also attempt to extort the victim for more images or even money, according to the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.
The centre says cappers even have contests where they vote on the best "caps," and there is a "hall of fame" on one forum.
The centre and the RCMP monitor these kinds of chat rooms and have seen predators talk with excitement about children being online more during the pandemic.
"One of the things we've noticed in the communication that we've been observing in some of the deeper and darker parts of the internet is essentially glee and delight that they're going to have a lot more access to kids," said Guerin.
"That attitude and that position that they have, essentially, we observe as a risk towards kids."
The RCMP is not the only police force sounding the alarm. Police in Gatineau, Que., also issued an alert on Tuesday, saying a man had contacted minors through the popular game Fortnite. He asked them for sexually explicit photos and invited them to his home.
The RCMP is trying to track down alleged predators like him by using geolocation software in its investigations. It's been able to detect at least 852 IP addresses in Canada in the last 30 days that have shared child sexual exploitation material.
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Some of those users are sharing often, said Guerin.
"This is a problem that's happening constantly," he said. "There is content being shared by offenders 24/7."
The Canadian Centre for Child Protection is also tracking how predators are trying to target kids during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Predators mock tips for parents
One post the centre tracked from a dark web forum where so-called cappers share advice and encouragement highlights a chat website that "has literally been bursting at the seams in the last two weeks with boys."
Another warns that during the pandemic, police "want to up their game against the likes of us," and to "be more careful," adding that tech companies are compelled to report child sexual exploitation to law enforcement.
They also mock the tips that are offered by police to parents.
"They recommend that parents ensure that their kids do not take phones, laptops or tablets into their bedrooms or bathrooms (it is our goals to get them there)," a post reads.
Stephen Sauer, director of the centre's tipline Cybertip.ca, said the predators educate each other on how to circumvent safety features of various apps and websites that youth use.
"These guys are fairly dangerous in terms of their communication," he said, and are tech-savvy, good at manipulating young people and clever at evading law enforcement.
Reports to Cybertip.ca on rise
On Cybertip.ca, the public can report various kinds of concerns, such as child sexual exploitation content or an adult who is believed to be trying to victimize a child. Victims can report what happened to them. Reports can be made anonymously.
Sauer said between April 3 and 17, reports to Cybertip.ca were up 40 per cent compared to previous two-week periods, and are just a snapshot of the exploitation.
"We know that often youth who have had a situation like this occur will not report," he said. "They try to deal with the whole situation on their own."
WATCH | Tips for parents to protect kids online:
His centre tends to find out about exploitation when an adult discovers it and reports it or when a child reaches a crisis situation.
"So, we are definitely only seeing the tip of the iceberg here in these situations."
That's why a key tip for parents from Sauer and Guerin is to encourage children to speak up if something uncomfortable happens to them online and build trust so they know they can go to their parents and not be judged or get in trouble.
Other tips include:
- Get to know what apps, games and websites children are using. Explore together.
- Create online accounts for them.
- Check privacy settings and parental controls.
- Set rules for online time, like how long and where in the home.
- Ask children to check in with you before accepting friend requests.
The RCMP is encouraging parents to "have a sitdown chat with their kids, even if they're late teens," Guerin said, and talk about online safety.
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The police force is focused on preventing these offences, but when they do happen, Guerin's investigators are determined to find those responsible.
"We are persistent in our efforts and always will be," he said.
WATCH | How sexual predators try to take advantage of kids spending more time online :