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Federal prosecutors say COVID-19 shutdowns create more risk of online exploitation

(Credit: Pixabay CC0 Creative COmmons)

SALT LAKE CITY – Federal prosecutors are warning parents… don’t let your guard down when it comes to your child’s online safety.  Prosecutors are concerned kids might be more vulnerable to online exploitation because of the COVID-19 shutdowns across the country.

Usually, social media platforms have safety monitors looking for possible cases of sexual exploitation.  However, US Attorney for Utah, John Huber, says many of those online safety monitors have been temporarily reassigned.

“These monitors on social media platforms are being asked to look at more COVID-19 related issues,” Huber said. Monitors are being asked to stop the spread of fake information about the virus instead. 

What COVID-19 changed online 

Huber notes predators are fully aware children aren’t going out because of lockdown restrictions.

“The other fact is that they’re online more. The kids are studying online. They’re communicating with their teachers online,” he said.

Huber says it’s too early to know if the actual number of exploitation cases in Utah has gone up since the outbreak started.  However, in the past few months, law enforcement agencies across the state have arrested several different people suspected of possessing child pornography and arranging to meet minors for sex. 

Huber highlights the biggest threat they see is adults assuming a false identity online.

“Someone who is befriending them [a child] online may claim that they’re a 13-year-old peer when in reality they’re a 20 or 30-year-old male adult who is looking to exploit them,” he said.

One recent case involves Miguel Jimenez from Magna.  Officials claim he pretended to be a 13-year-old girl who scheduled several meetings with a minor, even though he never showed up to those meetings. 

Another case involves Michael Fritchen from North Salt Lake.  Investigators claim he sexually exploitative images of children between four and six years old.  Additionally, Scott Clark of Ogden was reportedly caught with thousands of images of child pornography on his computer.

Staying safe online 

Huber stresses the importance of parents informing their kids about the potential dangers online. He advises parents to review and approve game apps before they’re downloaded and make sure privacy settings are set to the strictest standards. 

Huber also states kids should know they won’t get in trouble for sending sexual pictures if they were coerced into doing so.