Maryland State Police

PIKESVILLE — Maryland State Police officials are cautioning parents and children in Cecil County and elsewhere in the state to be “vigilant as it relates to internet safety” because investigators have witnessed a significant increase in the number of “cyber tips concerning the potential sexual exploitation” of youngsters during 2020.

From Jan. 1 through Dec. 7, MSP investigators had received 5,433 cyber tips — compared to 3,248 such tips during 2019, according to the Maryland State Police Computer Crimes Unit. That translates to 2,185 more tips during 2020, not counting ones that might be received in the 24 remaining days from that Dec. 7 date, than were received in 2019.

MSP officials believe that the dramatic increase in cyber tips throughout the state is linked to coronavirus-related measures to prevent the spread of disease, explaining that “both children and adults (are) spending more time online due to virtual learning and social distancing measures associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Investigators in Prince George’s County have received the most cyber tips thus far in 2020 — 1,036 such tips through November, compared to 525 during the same period in 2019, agency officials reported.

MSP officials provided the following breakdown of other counties that have witnessed a spike in cyber tips from Jan. 1 through November;

* Montgomery County with 862 cyber tips, compared to 408 in 2019.

* Howard County with 727 cyber tips, compared to 196 in 2019.

* Baltimore City with 712 cyber tips, compared to 480 in 2019.

* Baltimore County with 668 cyber tips, compared to 360 in 2019.

* Anne Arundel County with 344 cyber tips, compared to 264 in 2019.

Nationwide, cyber tips also have increased significantly during the past year, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), which reported that agency received 18.43 million cyber tips between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30 — compared to 11.28 million over the same period in 2019. This represents a 63.3 percent year-over-year increase, NCMEC officials noted.

Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30 NCMEC also recorded 30,236 reports of online enticement of children, compared to 15,220 reports over the same period in 2019, representing a 98.7 percent increase.

According to NCMEC officials, online enticement involves an individual communicating with someone believed to be a child via the internet with the intent to commit a sexual offense or abduction.

This is a broad category of online exploitation. It includes “sextortion,” in which a child is being groomed to take sexually explicit images and, or, ultimately meet face-to-face with someone for sexual purposes, or to engage in a sexual conversation online or, in some instances, to sell and, or, trade the child’s sexual images, NCMEC officials explained.

“This type of victimization takes place across every platform — social media, messaging apps, gaming platforms, et cetera,” an NCMEC spokesman said, adding, “Children are often the target populations for online criminal activity. Parents are encouraged to monitor their children’s use of all digital devices. Digital devices include laptops, tablets, desktop computers and ‘smart’ phones.”

MSP and NCMEC officials also are aware of instances in which child predators use the “darknet” to entice children to produce sexually explicit material. According to the NCMEC, some child traffickers adjusted to the reluctance of buyers to meet in-person to engage in commercial sex, explaining that some traffickers are now offering “options for subscription-based services in which buyers pay to access online images and videos of the child.”

Despite these dangers, parents can follow the following tips to help keep their children safe from Internet predators:

* Continuously monitor all of your child’s online activity

* Be aware of who your children are communicating with online

* Talk with your children about online content

* Remind children to avoid communication with strangers

* Maintain control of apps downloaded on your child’s device

* Be aware of what children see and hear and who they meet

* Know what information your child is sharing

Complaints involving the exploitation of children should be filed with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) at HYPERLINK “http://www.missingkids.com/www.missingkids.com or 1-800-THE-LOST. Complaints of child exploitation may include harassment, cyberbullying, and child pornography.

Maryland State Police investigators in the Computer Crimes Unit work closely with NCMEC in the investigation of crimes involving child exploitation. If a child is believed to be in imminent danger, citizens are urged to contact their local police or call 9-1-1 immediately.

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