Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the amount of sexual exploitation material shared has increased: online child abuse, sexual coercion and extortion of minors.
And minors were not exempt as we shifted from the real world to the virtual world: video calls to friends and family, interaction with social networks, online games, use of the internet for education and schooling. The more time they spend online, the more offenders are online, and the greater the exchange of material if they find new victims. Often, these victims are unaware they have been targeted through self-generated material; an area that represents a significant threat to children’s safety.
The current situation has provided sex offenders with the perfect opportunity to access a broader group of potential victims. The report published a few weeks ago by Europol analyses the increased sharing of child sexual exploitation images online and how to confront this serious threat to children’s safety.
The exchange of child abuse material is usually not motivated by financial gains, although offenders do pay for some forms of it, such as live distant child abuse. Through live streaming, offenders unable to travel due to corona restrictions can have children abused at their request.
The economic slow-down related to the COVID-19 pandemic may stimulate an increase in child abuse material produced within vulnerable communities for financial gain. And child abuse material content can also be disguised behind advertisements bringing criminals profits with a “pay per click” formula.
Society, including law enforcement, needs to focus even more on educating children and prevent them from becoming victims in the first place. The best weapon against sexual predators is to educate children to prevent the crimes. The harm resulting from being a victim of this crime is severe, and every time a picture or video is shared, this results in repeat victimisation.
Europol is monitoring the threat and provides continuous support to EU Member States and other law enforcement agencies to identify offenders and victims. The Europe-wide #SayNo campaign seeks to raise children’s awareness of the dangers of sharing explicit material online.
Europol coordinated an investigation in Italy involving more than 200 investigators. The operation, which took place in June 2020, was based on intelligence provided by Europol and directed by the Turin Prosecutor’s Office.
The investigation led to the arrest of 3 individuals, alongside the seizure of thousands of files. During the course of the investigation, the officers discovered that one of the suspects identified had been previously arrested for sexual abuse of children. The summary details the discovery of images and videos of sexual violence in which the victims were mainly babies, 6-year-old children and pre-teens.
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