by Joe Hong, guest writer
Among the many social consequences of the coronavirus pandemic is that young people are spending more time than ever at home and on their phones.
This has made them more vulnerable to human traffickers who lurk on social media, say local law enforcement officials.
Reports of internet crime against juveniles in San Diego County, which mostly involve sharing illicit photos of minors, have tripled since the pandemic started, according to the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office.
“Social media is good but it has its downfalls. You have a lot of catfishing going on,” said Dan Dierdorff, a detective with the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force.
“They’re representing somebody else to the victim or survivor. They start promising them things.”
In April of 2019, there were 287 reports in the county. This April, the number shot up to more than 850, the DA’s data show. The local numbers mirror a trend happening nationwide and across the world.
“It’s due to a variety of factors: with kids being home, parents being home due to stay at home order, schools being closed,” said Rebecca Sternberg, who oversees the Cyber Tipline at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va. “Children just have more access to being online.”
In April 2019, the national tipline received about one million reports of child exploitation online. This April, the Center received more than four million reports.
Dierdorff’s team, which focuses on sex trafficking cases in the San Diego region, conducted 12 rescues between March and May of this year, more than double what they did during the same months last year.
“Our main goal is helping victims out of the sex trafficking industry and then finding the individual who may be involved in organizing the sex trafficking for these individuals,” Dierdorff said.
The investigation often begins when friends and family report changes in a young person’s behavior, Dierdorff said. For example, parents have come to investigators concerned about their kids leaving home frequently.
“They come home with more than one phone, all of a sudden they have money with them, their boyfriends are older,” he said. “And there’s no explanation for it.”
The investigations can take days or months of monitoring potential victims’ Facebook and Instagram accounts. To make an arrest, Dierdorff and his team go undercover as customers who meet the perpetrators at a hotel.
“Once we set up the date and we knock on the door and the individual usually answers the door,” he said.
“Then we call the rest of the team who’s set up around the location to assist the victim or survivor of the sex crimes.”
Changes in behavior
Even before the pandemic, human trafficking was a top priority for local law enforcement. As a border town, San Diego is especially vulnerable. District Attorney Summer Stephan said her office has focused on prevention.
“We simply don’t talk to our kids about these issues,” Stephan said. “That’s why they’re kind of sitting ducks for exploitation.”
Last year, Stephan’s office launched the San Diego Trafficking Prevention Collective, which created a curriculum to help children detect when someone is trying to exploit them online.
Stephan said her investigators need to learn the codewords perpetrators use to solicit minors.
“They’ll use roses instead of money,” she said. “That’s a communication of trading sex for money.”
Stephan said local investigators have to keep up with the constantly changing methods of perpetrators. She added that social media platforms aren’t doing enough to help.
“Social platforms they don’t really adjust,” Stephan said. “They’re looking for huge red flags that by law they have to intercept, and they’re not looking for subtleties that we know about in law enforcement.”
Dierdorff says the fight against these crimes begins in the home. And because the pandemic has kept kids out of school and other settings where authorities can be alerted to problems, it’s more important than ever for parents to keep the lines of communication open.
“A lot of it is the responsibility of the parents,” Dierdorff said.
“I think the most important thing for us as individuals as a whole is just communication with each other and opening up and finding out what the other person’s going through. If you can’t gain the trust of individuals in your family or individuals in your community, you’re losing half the battle.”
Anyone with concerns that a minor they know is being exploited online can submit a report at report.cybertip.org.