SANTA ANA, Calif. - Federal agents are reaching out to children to get them to use street smarts online in a nationwide push to prevent sexual exploitation cases.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement will send agents to school auditoriums and community centers across the country to teach teens and tweens — and their parents — how to be safer online and steer clear of Internet predators amid a rise in cases involving the sexual exploitation of children.
Authorities hope the effort being launched on Tuesday will educate the young, savvy Internet users and encourage them to turn to law enforcement since it only takes one child stepping forward to unravel a network of predators that could be preying on scores of victims in a so-called sextortion case.
"What is horrifying about that is many, many of these children are not stepping forward and saying they're being extorted by somebody because they're in fear," said Patrick Redling, chief of ICE's Child Exploitation Investigations division. "By actually putting a face to law enforcement that is working these types of crimes, we are very confident that more kids will come forward."
It is the agency's first concerted push to reach out to kids nationwide to promote cybersafety. The effort is a partnership between the homeland security agents who investigate online predators and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which has been urging Internet safety for more than a decade.
Since 1998, the National Center has received 2.3 million reports of dissemination of child pornography or other forms of online sexual exploitation of children, half a million of them in the last year, said John Ryan, the center's president.
"The urgency to develop and deliver these prevention programs in these communities, particularly through the school system and particularly at an early age, has never been more important," he said.
Under the so-called iGuardian program, federal agents will hold workshops at schools and community organizations upon request and dole out colorful trading cards featuring super hero-style characters to grab kids' attention. They will also speak with parents about how they can guide their children in an era where Internet access is ubiquitous amid expanding wireless networks and shrinking computer devices.
Kirsten Penrose, who attended a session in Orange County, said the workshop taught her how predators use online family photos to stalk potential victims and how she can spot signs of trouble on her phone.
"For me to be aware of it and to know what to kind of look for now gives me some peace," said Penrose, who has two teenage children. "There's crazy people out there everywhere and they have more access than ever."