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Federal authorities launch online sexual exploitation safety program in Virginia
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Federal authorities launch online sexual exploitation safety program in Virginia

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Federal authorities Friday launched a new community-based prevention program, “UnMasked,” to warn about the prevalence of online sexual exploitation of children and young adults, how to prevent it and how to report it.

The program will teach middle school, high school and college students, along with parents, teachers and the broader community, about the potential dangers of the internet, using real-life examples as illustrated by law enforcement agents, prosecutors and victims, according to a news release Friday from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Presentations will be made at schools, colleges and universities throughout the Eastern District of Virginia, which runs generally from Northern Virginia, through the Richmond region, east to Hampton Roads.

The curriculum was provided by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s NetSmartz program. Participants and others in the audience will hear personal stories from survivors along with presentations from investigative, forensic and mental health experts.

The presentations, set to begin during the 2021–2022 school year, will include interactive components and video testimonials from survivors cautioning students about the dangers of online communications. UnMasked will offer lessons learned, tips and best practices on how to avoid being subjected to exploitation as well as what to do if a participant or someone they know falls victim.

Raj Parekh, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in a prepared statement that “online predators target some of the most vulnerable members of our society, and can cause a devastating impact on our communities and loved ones.”

“The first step to fighting back is awareness — educating our youth and parents with information on how to prevent these crimes from happening,” he said. Internet predators use false online identities as a mask to lure in victims, and the victims are often also “masked” as a result of the fear and stigma that can accompany online exploitation, said Parekh.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, online exploitation exploded last year during the COVID-19 pandemic as social isolation and online activity increased. The center’s CyberTipline received more than 21.4 million reports of child sexual exploitation from electronic service providers in 2020, as well as over 303,000 reports of online sexual exploitation from the public.

The figures represent a 27% annual increase in reporting from electronic service providers and a more than doubling in reports from the public.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, online exploitation encompasses offenses such as “online enticement of children for sexual acts, child sexual molestation, child sexual abuse material, child sex tourism, child sex trafficking, unsolicited obscene materials sent to a child, misleading domain names, and misleading words or digital images on the internet.”

Authorities said that online exploitation often begins with perpetrators contacting potential victims through social media, video games and websites, typically using false online profiles.

Agencies participating include the FBI; Homeland Security Investigations; the U.S. Defense Department’s Naval Criminal Investigative Service; the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and other law enforcement, educational and community organizations.

To report an incident involving online sexual exploitation, call (800) 843-5678 or submit a report online at report.cybertip .org. The CyberTipline is operated by NCMEC in partnership with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. To request an UnMasked event at your school or organization, please contact EDVA’s Community Outreach Coordinator, at USAVAE-UnMasked@usdoj.gov.

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