By Franca Braatz
Additional Reporting by Tamara Laine
In a discreet office inside New York’s FBI headquarters, the Assistant Special Agent in Charge of Violent Crimes and Crimes Against Children, Michael Osborn, is tackling a growing crisis in America: online child sexual exploitation.
“Those individuals that are out there exploiting our most vulnerable victims are using a variety of social media platforms,” he explained.
Osborn, who has spent years putting abusers behind bars, said that predatory pedophile behavior online is different from all other forms of human trafficking.
“We in the bureau talk about online child exploitation as really those individuals that use the internet to target and exploit kids for child pornography or to meet for sex,” he said, “as compared to human trafficking, where you have individuals that are really trading or selling the commodity, which is the girl or the woman.”
That distinction is all the more abhorrent because the victims can be so young and the online abuse ongoing.
A perfect example is “sextortion.”
“They will take access of a child’s computer and through that they will ask for an image of the child,” said Osborn, “and then at some point when the child gives them an image, they capture that and then threaten that child. They will threaten to release that image.”
Once they have a child’s information, predators use it to groom their victims, coercing and blackmailing them and eventually selling those illicit images and videos in dark corners of the web over and over again, making the exploitation never-ending, even if the victim is rescued.
As technology advances and social media platforms mushroom, it only gets easier for perpetrators to hide their crimes and the money that goes with it.
Queens Prosecutor Jessica Melton believes it’s a business that is proliferating because many times loved ones are in the dark about what’s really going on.
“Every trafficker that we have seen has more than one victim, they are doing this as a business, to support themselves,” she said. “Traffickers can be targeting victims without people in their lives even knowing they are being recruited — through social media like Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat.
And on sites like the now defunct ‘Backpage.com’ — a huge online marketplace synonymous with sex ads that was shut down by the Justice Department in a 93-count indictment.
“They were coaching folks on how to make their ads more acceptable and avoid detection.” Rachel Lloyd, founder of the survivor advocacy group GEMS, has lived through the horrors of being trafficked and knows just how hard it is to stay ahead of trafficking sites like Backpage.com.
“Backpage staffers had a whole kind of script on how to coach pimps and traffickers,” she explained. “There’s been a development of algorithms to be able to suss out certain keywords and ads. By the time folks catch up with that, traffickers have changed the types of words or have been smarter about hiding.”
Now that Backpage is gone, other sites have popped up in its place, proof that more needs to be done to protect our most vulnerable from being targeted.
“It’s always about the vulnerability,” Osborn says. Vulnerabilities that need to be addressed through awareness, education, and tougher laws…the key to putting an end to online child exploitation, as well as holding social media providers accountable.
“I’m sure that if most of these folks had really thought about, ‘Oh, you’d be able to buy sex from a 12-year-old on your phone… that wasn’t why they were creating,” Lloyd explained. “But you did create it, so now, there is a responsibility to figure out how to combat it and how to fix it.”
It’s one piece of the puzzle that’s part of a much larger problem.
“It has to be a multi-pronged approach,” said Melton. “First, prosecuting the traffickers is a must. We have to support the victims, give them alternatives. These are women and children.”
“And really trying to educate people and bringing them into the fold,” added Osborn. “It’s a war right? You have to be patient because, as we’ve seen sometimes, children are ready to receive benefits and receive help and sometimes they’re not, but we’re going to be there regardless.”
These are just some of the solutions that could help put an end to this horrible crime.
Another? Remembering that behind every online image, every video, is a real-life human being — an exploited child — whose suffering can last a lifetime.