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The importance of staying safe online

Being online in some form or another, be it on our cell phone or our computers, is something just about every one of us does for hours every single day. It has become a way of life.

And that means every one of us can easily fall victim to some sort of online scam or other online danger.

June is recognized as National Internet Safety Month but, while the calendar is turning to July, we all need to stay vigilant in our need to stay safe online every single day of every month.

There are predators online constantly looking for ways to find their prey. That can come in the form of stealing your identity or finding a way to get to your money or personal information.

The National Cyber Security Alliance has a website that provides important and useful tips to stay safe, how to protect your privacy, and a way to report cybercrime. Their tips and resources help protect you while online and when using your various devices.

The website is www.staysafeonline.org.

Although Prime Day has passed, online shopping is a year-round activity. One of the easiest ways to stay safe while doing that is to be sure you are on the website for the business (not going there via a link that could be fake) and to be sure the website address starts with HTTPS, which provides extra online security measures.

Consumers can also get tips, advice, or report ID theft by visiting the Federal Trade Commission website at www.ftp.gov.

One of the most frightening things happening online and on social media platforms – especially for PARENTS who are reading this – is how often and how easily sexual predators are targeting children online. And they are doing it at an absolutely shocking rate.

It used to be that parents had to be aware of possible predators targeting their children in public, like at the mall or at a park. But now, many teens and children use cell phones or gaming platforms to talk to others.

“We brought the park into our children’s bedrooms,” Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin says.

Parents need to know and keep a close eye on what their children are doing on their phones or while online.

The DA’s Bureau of Investigation leads the critically important and very active Riverside County Child Exploitation Team, or RCCET. One of the prongs of the work RCCET does is to respond to “cyber tips” about online predators targeting children.

Most of these cyber tips come in from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) (www.missingkids.org).

Check out these shocking numbers: In 2019, about 1,240 cyber tips were received by the task force (then called SAFE/ICAC). In 2020, the number of tips received locally more than doubled to about 2,600.

“We are on pace to easily surpass 3,000 this year,” said Supervising DA Investigator Wade Walsvick.

Many of these cyber tips involve someone reportedly possessing and/or distributing images and/or videos of child sexual exploitation.

However, the even more frightening tips involve people contacting teens and children to meet them for sex or to commit lewd acts. Investigators call the people in these cases “travelers” because they will drive – sometimes even book airline flights – to meet their victims.

But RCCET investigators have taken a proactive approach at finding these predators and stopping them before they can get to an underage victim. Investigators, in an undercover capacity, go online in chat rooms and on chat apps found on cell phones. And there are hundreds and hundreds of such apps. Parents need to be vigilant in knowing what their children are using on their cell phones and gaming platforms.

The undercover investigator, posing as an underage user in the chat, then waits to be contacted by a possible predator. Investigators say that they are typically contacted almost immediately. During the subsequent chat conversation, the predator will set up a meeting with someone who they believe to be underage. Then, when they arrive at the arranged location, they are instead met by RCCET investigators and arrested.

DA Sr. Investigator Liam Doyle is assigned to RCCET. He said so far in 2021, RCCET has arrested about 15 of these “travelers”. That’s an average of more than two every month.

Over a monthlong period recently, RCCET also teamed up with the Riverside County Anti-Human Trafficking task force, which is led by the Sheriff’s Department for Operation Intercept which targeted “travelers”. There were 25 people arrested during that operation. Several of those were RCCET arrests.

In total, RCCET has made nearly 90 arrests this year which includes not only “travelers” but also registered sex offenders found to not be complying with the terms of registration, and people possessing and/or distributing images and/or videos depicting child sexual exploitation.

One of the unique ways RCCET can find the hidden devices on which suspects keep such images and videos isn’t a fancy piece of technology. It has four legs and is named Chewie.

Chewie is an English Labrador and an electronic storage detection police canine on the RCCET task force. His handler is DA Investigator Joel Pabelico.

From August 2020 through June 2021, Chewie and his handler have been deployed about 45 times to search residences and vehicles. During those searches, Chewie has alerted to more than 100 various electronic storage devices which have included cell phones, laptops, digital cameras, pads, SD cards, and external hard drives.

RCCET officials believe one of the contributing factors for the increasing number of cyber tips is that more teens and children have been online due to the COVID-19 pandemic and students being at home for online school instead of being in a traditional classroom.

KABC 7 in Los Angeles did a very informative segment about that issue which can be found via our Facebook page here: https://bit.ly/3jjiSKN

Just about every one of us use the internet or social media just about every day.

The bottom line is, it is up to all of us to do our best to stay safe – and keep our children safe -- while doing everyday things like using email, shopping, or interacting on social media.

Learn more about the Riverside County Child Exploitation Team, online safety, and registered sex offenders or submit a tip by visiting www.rivcosafe.org

 

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