A Europol report says that during the COVID-19 lockdown, when children’s lives promptly shifted from the real world into an online virtual one, “sex offenders have found in this development a tempting opportunity to access a broader group of potential victims.”
The report, entitled “Exploiting isolation: sexual predators increasingly targeting children during COVID pandemic,” says that a child is “re-victimised every time an image is shared” and that explicit material represents a “significant” threat to children’s safety.
Europol’s Executive Director Catherine De Bolle said, “The COVID-19 crisis has resulted in a surge in online distribution of child sexual abuse material, which was already at high levels prior to the pandemic.”
“The COVID-19 crisis has resulted in a surge in online distribution of child sexual abuse material, which was already at high levels prior to the pandemic” Catherine De Bolle, Europol Executive Director
She added, “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. The impact of this crime area can hardly be overstated and an effective response is of utmost importance.”
The report, says Europol, shines a light on the increased sharing of child sexual exploitation images online and the “serious threat” this poses to children’s safety.
To confront the threat Europol says that law enforcement authorities have increased efforts to tackle “this severe crime.”
“With both children and sexual offenders confined at home, law enforcement authorities have seen in the past few months the amount of child sexual exploitation material shared online increasing globally,” says the report.
Sex offenders have increased their criminal activities in social media, via peer-to-peer networks and on the “dark web.”
Attempts to access websites featuring child sexual abuse material, calls to helplines and activities in dark net and the sharing of child abuse material have all increased during the confinement period.
In some countries, sexual abuse offences, such as online solicitation and what is called “sextortion” have also been reported.
The report goes on, “Webcam videos have considerably increased in offenders’ forums. This includes videos depicting forced or coerced children, videos produced by children for peers or for social media attention or others which were captured without their knowledge.”
“Video ‘competitions’ organised in child sexual exploitation web forums may have also influenced the increase of exchanged images.”
“With both children and sexual offenders confined at home, law enforcement authorities have seen in the past few months the amount of child sexual exploitation material shared online increasing globally” Europol report
“The monitoring of these forums shows that abusers were quick to realise the enhanced vulnerability of children being more online.”
On such forums, offenders exchange not only abuse material, but also share “best practices” on how to trick and coerce more victims.
While the exchange of child abuse material is usually not motivated by financial gain, offenders pay for some forms of it, such as live distant child abuse.
Child abuse material content can also be “disguised” behind advertisements bringing criminals profits with a “pay per click” formula.
The report went on, “The economic slow-down related to the pandemic may stimulate an increase of child abuse material produced within vulnerable communities for economic gain.”
With more offenders online, the exchange of abuse material may continue to increase, the agency warns.
A Europol spokesman says it is monitoring the threat and “providing continuous support to Member States to identify offenders and victims.”