Operation Covid Chatdown, an initiative involving various local and federal law enforcement agencies in central California, recently resulted in the apprehension of 34 online sexual predators in Fresno. The Department of Homeland Security released a statement explaining that these individuals were arrested for “soliciting sexual acts from individuals they believed were 12- or 13-year-old children but were actually undercover law enforcement operatives.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) were two of the agencies involved in Operation Covid Chatdown. Tatum King, the Special Agent in Charge, said, “These abhorrent attempts by predators to exploit innocent children for immoral and illegal sexual gratification have no place in American society.” He continued, noting that HSI will “relentlessly pursue anyone involved in criminal behavior against children.”
According to DHS’ statement, “Operation Covid Chatdown is a startling look at how many individuals in just the Fresno region alone are actively grooming children online to meet for sexual encounters.” Over the course of the undercover operation, which was conducted from July 20 to August 2, more than 190 suspects continued to chat with officers even after they acknowledged believing that they were speaking with a minor.
In a “significant number of instances,” perpetrators sent “sexually explicit images” to people they believed to be children. After the suspects asked the operatives to “engage in sexual acts, they were given an address in Fresno. These 34 men traveled to the address and were arrested.
The statement illustrates the depravity of the individuals who were apprehended:
“These 34 men traveled by foot, skateboard, bike, or vehicle to meet 12- and 13-year-old boys and girls, who turned out to be law enforcement operatives with badges, guns and handcuffs. However, a number of the arrested individuals admitted to victimizing real children during previous attempts. One man admitted he was HIV positive and that he planned to have sex with a 13-year-old child.”
These suspects are facing a slew of criminal charges, including sending harmful material to seduce a minor, arranging meeting with a minor for lewd purpose, and possession, transmission, and transportation of child pornography. Some of them lied to what they thought were minors and claimed they were also teenagers. Each of them came to the premises “fully expecting” to have sex with children.
The Central California Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force, which was formed in 2007, is made up of 64 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. Its purpose is to protect children from online predators.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent quarantine orders, the demand for child porn and the risk of sexual exploitation has risen exponentially. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the level of child exploitation rates has doubled compared to the numbers from last year.
The Philadelphia Inquirer pointed out that even though the abuse is “virtual,” it can still cause “severe lifelong harm to children,” as it still involves adults grooming children and initiating illicit sexual interactions. In many of these cases, adults are exchanging and soliciting sexually explicit images and videos that can then be shared with others.
While law enforcement agencies are doing their best to crack down on these predators, it is even more crucial that parents remain aware of their children’s activities online. While these offenders can traumatize children online, the situation becomes much worse if the situation escalates to in-person encounters. It could lead to rape, molestation, and also human trafficking.
As more kids are staying home, the prevalence of online predators could become worse despite the best efforts of law enforcement. As stated previously, it is up to the parents to protect their kids from these criminals. The best way to stymie the efforts of predators is to ensure transparency with your children’s online activities.
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