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Illinois Attorney General, law enforcement announce new efforts to prevent online child exploitation

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - The Illinois Attorney General's office is working with local, state, and federal law enforcement to crack down on online child exploitation. Attorney General Kwame Raoul announced new efforts to find offenders and keep your family informed on internet safety.

Raoul's team is starting a new series of online webinars to help families know the best ways to keep their children safe while they're on the internet. The Attorney General's office is also using a new mobile forensic unit to help process digital evidence quickly during search warrants.

Raoul says the threat of online predators grew significantly over the past few years as more children spend time online. He explained the COVID-19 pandemic threw a curveball in the state's ongoing efforts to stop online exploitation. Raoul notes predators waited for children to spend more time online for classwork and social media.

"Child predators are there to try and take advantage of this," Raoul said. "Child predators are actively trolling the internet, trading, selling, and collecting images of the most vile sexual acts involving children."

Raoul's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force received 4,299 online reports of child pornography during 2019. People reported more than 5,100 "Cybertips" last year. Raoul expects tips to go up by 23% by the end of this year. He noted that's mainly due to increased reporting and awareness on social media platforms.

Preventing child exploitation

The task force shares resources with law enforcement to help find predators. But, they also want to help families take an active role in online safety.

"Although we will be forever vigilant in prosecution, prosecution will never be better than prevention. Prevention will always be more important," said Douglas Quivey, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois.

Law enforcement leaders say they understand most of the apps young children and teens use are encrypted. They said that makes it harder for parents and guardians to protect their children. However, leaders stressed that youth from marginalized communities are more prone to those who hope to groom them, online or in person.

Many hope the online safety training sessions can help parents, guardians, and educators know these signs.

"The eyes of parents start to light up when you start thinking about this because they do believe that when their kid is in their room, or on the computer, or playing a video game, that they're extremely safe. And they don't think about the vulnerabilities that are associated with that," Raoul said.

New resource to help with investigations

Meanwhile, the mobile forensic unit gives evidence technicians the best tools to process digital evidence from cell phones, hard drives, and laptops. The Attorney General's office has already used this unit to help law enforcement with investigations in Livingston County, Winnebago County, and the Metro East.

"Pushing back against the distribution of these grotesque, diabolical images of child sexual exploitation requires continued and increased vigilance by all of us," said Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly.

The ICAC Task Force has significantly helped state police find and arrest sexual predators. Kelly explained the group had 71 leads in 2019 that led to 19 arrests. They had 99 tips and 24 arrests during 2020. Kelly said police have already made 37 arrests this year.

"Every succeeding year, we've broken the record," Kelly said. "The rate at which evidence of crimes against children involving child pornography is alarming to all of us, even seasoned law enforcement professionals. It reinforces why we must continue to fight this fight," Kelly said.

The first free internet safety webinar is this Thursday at 6:30 p.m. Raoul's team will hold webinars on the first Thursday of each month. Anyone interested in the sessions should email karilyn.orr@ilag.gov.

You can report online child exploitation by contacting local law enforcement. People can also call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's tipline at 1-800-THE-LOST.

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Mike Miletich

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