WASHINGTON—The Justice Department says nearly 1,700 people have been arrested following a two-month crackdown aimed at targeting suspected child predators.
The announcement on June 11 caps the nationwide investigation conducted by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies around the U.S.
Prosecutors said they identified more than 300 people suspected of producing child pornography or committing sexual abuse involving children.
The investigation, nicknamed “Broken Heart,” was conducted in April and May. Officials said they investigated more than 18,500 complaints of crimes against children.
Attorney General William Barr vowed to bring “the full force of the law against sexual predators.”
Officials say the crackdown targeted suspects who produced or possessed child pornography, who tried to entice children online for sex, traveled to other states or countries to abuse children or engaged in sex trafficking.
One in seven children who use the internet receives unwanted sexual solicitations, according to the New York Specialized Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC). Online predators often pose as children to trick child victims into trusting them. The predators exploit the trust to get the children to produce sexually explicit material. The children who fall prey to the scheme are then often extorted with the threat that their photographs would be sent to their family and friends.
“As society becomes more advanced, so do the predators,” said Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Edward O’Callaghan, during a June 11 conference in Atlanta.
“No longer do they merely lurk around the playground or the schoolyard. Instead, these deviants use advanced technologies to facilitate their crimes, targeting children in online chat rooms and videogame lobbies,” O’Callaghan said.
“In fact, just last month, a California man was sentenced to 14 years in prison for sexually exploiting a minor he met while playing ‘Clash of Clans,’ an online video game that any child can easily access through a mobile device or tablet,” he added.
Child sex predators are increasingly using sophisticated technology to encrypt their communications and conceal their whereabouts. Hundreds of thousands of predators use the anonymous Tor browser to flock to websites on the darknet dedicated to child sex exploitation.
A law enforcement review of nine Tor sites hosting child sex abuse discussions, videos, and images tracked 1.9 million members last fall. Some sites were adding thousands of new users every day. One child sex abuse site has 432,235 registered members, according to WePROTECT Global Alliance.
Online child sex abuse and the production of child pornography are skyrocketing. Reports of online child sexual abuse and exploitation tracked by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children grew tenfold from 2013 to 2017. The number of identified child victims grew fivefold between 2010 and 2017, to 15,000 from roughly 3,000 sexually abused children.
As the epidemic booms, law enforcement authorities are struggling to keep up. The number of child exploitation cases went up by 160 percent between 2008 and 2018, according to Callaghan. Federal prosecutors filed more than 2,500 child exploitation cases in the fiscal year 2018, capturing just a fraction of the predators.
Barr issued guidance to the Justice Department to pursue maximum sentences in child sex exploitation cases, according to O’Callaghan.
“For example, last month a Nebraska man was sentenced to 35 years in prison, followed by a lifetime term of supervised release for filming himself engaged in forcible, sexual acts with a non-communicative minor,” O’Callaghan said. “He represents just one of the many vile criminals that the Department will work hard to remove from society for as long as legally possible.”
The Associated Press and Epoch Times Ivan Pentchoukov contributed to this report.