Q&A with John Shehan, executive director of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children

The circumstances surrounding the Miss Teen USA Cassidy Wolf “sextortion” case are both alarming and frightening. What exactly is “sextortion” and how do online predators use tactics like this to prey on unsuspecting children?

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children operates the congressionally authorized CyberTipline, which accepts information regarding the sexual exploitation of children. Since 1998, the CyberTipline has received more than two million reports. In some of these cases, we have received information regarding boys and girls under the age of 18 who have been blackmailed into taking sexually suggestive images. These situations normally begin where the underage teenager has self-produced a nude image and shared it on the Internet or via cell phone through sexting. The receiver of the nude image then extorts the child into performing additional sexual acts on camera or physically with the extorter. A failure to comply with the requests of the extorter leads to threats of the original nude image(s) being distributed to family and friends or posted to an even larger audience online.

Sometimes we have an image of a sexual predator as this creepy man, lurking in the shadows near a playground, but in this case the victim was exploited by someone her own age. Is there a typical profile of a perpetrator that people should be wary of or is it impossible to tell?

While it is true that some adults have a sexual interest in children, that’s not always the case. Peer on Peer sexual predation amongst teenagers is prevalent and should not be ignored. When discussing sexting cases, often a teenager will self-produce a nude or pornographic image to attract the attention of a peer. Unfortunately, what may have been intended as a private image for a boyfriend or girlfriend does not always stay that way. Images can be shared with others or the recipient of that image may use intimidation and threats for additional and more sexually suggestive images. Instead of trying to profile or conceptualize a mental image of what a sexual predator may look like, parents instead should focus on positive communication and discuss the appropriate usage of digital devices with their children. Also of importance is a discussion what could go wrong and what to do if something does go wrong. The worst case situation is a child who is being blackmailed for additional pornographic images and that child does not feel comfortable telling their parents or a trusted adult. The child will feel trapped with no options and will end up taking additional photographs in hopes that the extorter will just go away. When this happens, the extortion does not stop – it only gets worse and intensifies. Those cases are incredibly distressing and traumatic for the victim.

I know we’d like to believe that cases where children are solicited and extorted through online channels are few and far between, but is this really true? How prevalent is this issue in the U.S.?

Since 1998, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) has received more than 60,000 reports regarding the Online Enticement of Children for Sexual Acts. During this same time frame, NCMEC has received more than 1.9 million reports to the CyberTipline regarding the possession, manufacturing and distribution of child pornography.

While it may be an uncomfortable topic to discuss at the dinner table, it is an unfortunate reality that some adults have a sexual interest in children.

After reading about this case, many parents are worried and looking for ways to protect their children online. What advice would you give to the parent that wants to make sure this never happens to their son or daughter?

Communication is the most important aspect to thwarting and preventing this issue. Please take the time to talk to your son or daughter about their appropriate usage of digital devices. This could include cell phones, social networking sites, Internet usage and even online gaming. Anecdotally, I would say the number one device that a sexual predator is most interested in is the child’s cell phone. Why? Well, the cellular phone is with the child all the times. Teens live in a digital era and it is of the utmost importance for them to always be connected. Most phones today allow for texting, sharing images and provide internet access. These phones can be put on silent and allow the child to be reachable at any hour of the day.

In this case, Cassidy Wolf made the right decision by calling the authorities and explaining what had happened, which eventually led to the online predator’s arrest. Where can people go to report leads and tips regarding suspected crimes of sexual exploitation committed against children?

Our longest-running program to help prevent the sexual exploitation of children is the CyberTipline, the national clearinghouse for leads and tips regarding crimes against children on the Internet. It is operated in partnership with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), the Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the U.S. Secret Service, the Military Criminal Investigative Organizations, the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces (“ICAC”), the U.S. Department of Justice’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, as well as other state and local law enforcement. We receive reports in eight categories of crimes against children:
• possession, manufacture and distribution of child pornography;
• online enticement of children for sexual acts;
• child prostitution;
• sex tourism involving children;
• extrafamilial child sexual molestation;
• unsolicited obscene material sent to a child;
• misleading domain names; and
• misleading words or digital images on the Internet.

The leads are reviewed by NCMEC analysts, who examine and evaluate the content, add related information that would be useful to law enforcement, use publicly-available search tools to determine the geographic location of the apparent criminal act, and provide all information to the appropriate law enforcement agency for investigation. These reports are triaged continuously to ensure that children in imminent danger get first priority.

Anyone who has information regarding the sexual exploitation of a child should make a report at www.cybertipline.com or call our toll free hotline at 1-800-843-5678.