BUFFALO, N.Y. — The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said reports of online enticement, where adults communicate with children intending to commit a sexual offense or abduction, have increased 97.5% from 2019 to 2020.
"Over 21.7 million reports. It's the largest number of reports ever to the cyber tip line since its existence," said Kathy Gust, a program director at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
"I think that's a direct result as to the fact that we're putting tablets and laptops in the hands of our children for school," said Mike Hockwater, a detective on the FBI's Child Exploitation Task Force.
Hockwater said the increase in online enticement reports comes at a time children are spending increased time on phones, computers and tablets.
"Their tablets - that's their life right now. That's how they're communicating and continuing their relationships with their friends," Gust said.
"Anytime there are people social networking, it's an opportunity for an offender to groom a relationship whether it's an adult relationship or child relationship," Dr. David Heffler, a forensic mental health counselor, said.
A criminal complaint filed in January accuses Pedro Melendez, a Niagara Falls man, of admitting he had been communicating with an 11-year-old girl from Connecticut online via PlayStation.
According to the complaint, Melendez confirmed the girl was 11-years-old, then "sent images of his face and two images of a penis, which he purported to be his own."
The complaint said, "Melendez asked minor victim to send a picture of herself to him." When the girl offered to get her father's phone to take the image, Melendez said "don't want him to get suspicious."
"They will take a person who you would never expect would fall for such a trick and they convince them prior to ever having asked for a picture, prior to talking about meeting, they groom them by telling them how great they are," Hockwater said.
Hockwater said some of these interactions move from online communication to in-person meet-ups.
Last August in Chautauqua County, New York, a federal complaint was filed involving Richard LaFrance, a registered sex offender.
He is accused of communicating with a 14-year-old student via her Silver Creek School email. The complaint said he eventually gave her a phone to communicate with him.
The complaint said LaFrance and the student exchanged sexual images, and the victim said she eventually went on a fishing trip with LaFrance where they engaged in intercourse.
The LaFrance complaint documents LaFrance saying, "You better delete these or at least most of them after you read them," in response to the victim saying, "Love u" after discussing the fishing trip.
"We've had several cases in the last year involving people who have traveled long distances to meet children after they had engaged with them online," Hockwater said.
Hockwater said the three most common sites where offenders exist are Snapchat, Instagram and Kik, but they can be found on any social media outlet or platform where a child has access to the internet. He said parents need to be looking at their kids' online presence more often.
"We look back at what went wrong and how we could have prevented it and more often times than not, it's just the lack of deep involvement by a parent on their children's online world," Hockwater said.
"We have to make it harder for offenders to victimize children. The best way to do that is to really educate our children about the risk," Dr. Heffler said.
Dr. Heffler works with victims and perpetrators of online sexual abuse. He said parents need to go through their children's social media and online accounts because this kind of abuse can change the course of a child's life.
"It has a lifelong impact. There's no point in time in which a victim of abuse will say it no longer bothers me. It no longer has an effect on me," Dr. Heffler said.
Gust said to have an open conversation about offenders with your kids.
"Start those conversations at a young age. The child just grows up naturally feeling safe and having those conversations. And they know, if I go to mom and dad they're not going to overreact," Gust said.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children also offers family services if a child or parent needs to speak with someone or ask for assistance in finding a therapist or attorney.
This story was originally published by Olivia Proia at WKBW.