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Online Child Exploitation: Eliminating Child Exploitation on the Web in Silicon Valley Video

In This Episode:

In today's digital era, the issue of child pornography continues to escalate at an alarming rate. As we confront over 45,000 reported cases, it's clear that this represents only a fraction of a much larger crisis. The internet has become a hotbed for child grooming, with 30% of such interactions leading to abuse. The dark web intensifies the problem, with 80% of its traffic linked to illegal activities, including the circulation of child exploitation content. These figures are a stark reminder of the need for immediate action to safeguard children everywhere.

Online Child Exploitation Problem of Silicon Valley:

  • Child Pornography: The proliferation of child pornography remains a severe issue, with over 45,000 cases.
  • Online Child Grooming and Predation: Online child grooming and exploitation have significantly increased, resulting in physical abuse for over 30% of minors involved.
  • Dark Web Child Exploitation: A large portion of the dark web's content, estimated at 80%, is tied to illegal activities, with much of it involving child exploitation material.

"Start that conversation young with them. Let them know that no matter your mistakes, you have someone there for you."

About Angelie Donzanti:

Angelie Donzanti works as a Senior Analyst for the San José Police Department, focusing on sexual assault and special victims cases. She is dedicated to fighting child sexual exploitation online and human trafficking. Angelie started her career helping troubled youth in Los Angeles and has worked with young people facing a range of issues, including trauma, addiction, and mental illness. She's also involved in the Silicon Valley Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and has helped create a program to teach parents and the community about social media safety to protect children online. This program is now spreading across the country.

"Be involved, see what they're on, because the more you know about what they're doing on social media, the better chance you have of preventing anything from happening to your child."

Show Notes:

  • Meet Pauline Stewart: Pauline introduces herself as a mother of two teenage boys and her work in the school district, focusing on special needs children in Morgan Hill
  • Why Pauline decided to volunteer her time to share her story. Her motivation stems from a devastating event involving her son in February 2022
  • Remembering Ryan: Pauline talks about her son, Ryan, who was a bright, ambitious 17-year-old with a passion for Future Farmers of America and agricultural biotechnology
  • Signs of Trouble: Pauline reflects on the absence of warning signs leading up to the tragic incident. The swift progression of events left little room for detection
  • Unaware of Scams: Pauline expresses her wish to have been more informed about scams targeting young people. She hadn't been aware of the existence of these scams
  • Community Involvement: Parents should engage with their children's online activities and build open lines of communication to provide guidance and support
  • Report and Save Everything: In the event of an incident, Pauline advises parents to report the issue, preserve all communication, and not send any money
  • Law Enforcement Role: Sergeant Sean shares the work of the San Jose Police Department's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which is responsible for combating child exploitation online
  • The Scope of the Team: Sergeant Sean elaborates on the size of their task force, its programs, and the scale of cases they handle
  • Child Victim Age Groups: Sergeant Sean sheds light on the age groups most vulnerable to social media crimes, ranging from 10 to 13, with cases even involving children as young as four
  • Challenges Faced: The challenges the organization faces, such as cases involving suspects in foreign countries and the overwhelming volume of cases, are outlined
  • AI and the Future: The episode concludes with a glimpse into the future, highlighting the potential challenges and ethical dilemmas surrounding AI and its impact on online safety

"Make sure that they know how important they are to you. And that you are there for them no matter what. Our children are the most important things out there, and we must do everything we can to protect them."

Episode Transcription

So, tell us a little bit about yourself.

My name is Pauline Stewart. I'm a mother of two teenage boys. I work in the school district working with special needs children in Morgan Hill.

Last February 2022, I lost my son Ryan to this extortion scam. It devastated our family. Both I and my husband knew after this happened that we needed to do anything that was possible to make sure that no other family suffered the same thing that we did.

Ryan was a 17-year-old senior at Anne Sobrato High School. He was a straight-A student, the chapter secretary for the Future Farmers of America, working on his Eagle Scout project. And he was a second-degree black belt. He had a small group of friends that he was very close with, and they did a lot of things together. We just came back from a tour of Washington State University. And he decided we looked at other colleges. We looked at UCLA, UC San Diego, and all that. And he had his heart set on Washington State University. He wanted to study agricultural biotechnology. He made it into the honors program there. And he had his heart set on helping people. through his career and he combined his love of the Future Farmers of America where he raised animals and he wanted to continue studying and working with agriculture.

We were a very close-knit family. We would travel to Oregon. My husband is from Germany. We would go to Germany. We did a lot of things together. My son, both my sons were best friends. When they grew up, people would ask if they were twins because they did everything together. They were both part of it. Karate did the second degree together. They're both part of the FFA. They were just very close. The week before this happened, we had gone down and toured multiple colleges. And he was just so excited that he was going. And I mean, we were close enough that he would actually say, Mom, I like this girl. What should I do? And he included his brother. with things that he did with his friends. It just, it was, we were a family that did lots of things together. And I could easily tell when he was upset. One time he got into, he couldn't get into his Washington State University account. He just couldn't remember the password, or actually, I think he mistyped it in. And he was upset. And you could easily tell, what's wrong. And he's like. I'm tired. I'm like, oh, no, what? And then as soon as Aidan left the room, he's like, I can't get in. I won't be able to go to Washington State because I couldn't get into it, I can't remember. So this was a child that was very easy to read. You knew when things bothered him, and his brother, everyone could tell when something was bothering him.

We had just got back from the tour of the Southern California schools, and my younger son was dog-sitting. So he was a new driver. So I went down with Aiden to his coach's house to feed the dogs since he couldn't drive after dark. And we got home at 10. And. He was still his normal happy self, but we found out later that somebody had reached out to him through social media and befriended him. Kind of simple things starting like, oh, I like the pictures you post, things are nice. So they started the casual little back-and-forth chat, and then the event, and he thought he was speaking to a young girl. They sent him a picture. and he sent it, then they asked for one back. He eventually did send it, and within seconds of them receiving that picture, they demanded $5,000 from him. And they put pressure on him, and eventually, he was able to send $150. But the unfortunate part about that is then they knew that he was a source of money. So he continued. So they continued to put pressure on him to send more money. And he couldn't, they asked for access to his accounts. He gave it to him thinking that if I did this, they would stop, but they didn't. They knew that they had control of him. So they continued to put pressure on him until he felt that he had no other choice. but to take his life. 

It was 100% responsible because they reached out to him. They started chatting with him on social media. If it weren't for social media, they would never have been able to reach him. They also used social media as a threat to him: if you don't pay us, if you don't do this, we will post the pictures that you sent to your friends, family, and contacts on your social media. So, none of this would have happened if social media weren't there.

In our case with Ryan, there were no signs. At six o'clock, we had a typical family dinner. We left, and Aiden left to take care of the dogs. When we returned, it was 10 p.m., and he brushed his teeth. He was his usual, happy, smiley self. By two o'clock in the morning, it was too late. This, from start to finish, was eight hours long. We had no signs because most of it happened after we had gone to bed. But it was so short that we saw no signs of this. 

I wish I knew about these types of scams. We had talked to our kids about different types of scams, but I never knew this one existed. Unfortunately, I never thought I needed to talk to him about the strangers reaching out to him. So, I wish I knew. more about these types of scams because we could have had conversations with them because my son was a very trusting person and he believed that they were a young girl who reached out to him. I wish I had known these types of scams existed so we could start the conversation about how to find out if they really are the people they did. So if I had known, I would have also talked to him about sending pictures out and stuff like that. So I just wasn't aware that this was going on.

You need to know that you need to start conversations with your kids very early. I had a great relationship with my son, and I knew he knew he could come to me. But then, he was so scared that he didn't think he could. So, parents need to know how to start that conversation with their children when they are young. Let them know. No matter your mistakes, you have someone there for you. They should also, and if you start, and hopefully you'll never need to have those talks about the mistakes happening and what to do, but if they know that no matter what, you support them, because I thought my kid knew that, but I didn't have those direct. Actual words. I didn't say those. So, if you start that conversation young and continue it so that the kids know because sometimes they get so scared if they're in situations, they lose thinking details. And so if you can have it, they can say, oh no, my mom says it's okay.

I can come to her. And the other thing I think people should know is if something happens and your child doesn't feel comfortable with you. Make sure that they know who they can talk to. School counselor, aunt, uncle, somebody, because sometimes they're just too nervous about your reaction, make sure they know they have a trusted adult. School counselors need to know to go ahead and have these conversations so their kids feel comfortable. In our situation, if Ryan had even gone to his friends, it would have come back to us because I know all of his friends and their families. So even if he doesn't feel he can talk to an adult if he can talk to a friend, that can help because your friends will find help for you. 

It's just a repeat, but I want you guys to have conversations and know that. Tell them, talk to them about people out there. All the, you know, you, I wanted my kid to be trusting of people, but you got to balance it out. How could they still have their trust but still question people and things? My son could have left and believed anything that people said. So, unfortunately, you've got to work with the kids so that they know to try to read the difference. And I also want families to know what they can do if something does happen to them. I've been in situations where families have come to me and talked to their kids about what happened. And so they thought, oh no, they know about it. They won't fall for it. But they did. But they figured out how, okay, I got myself in trouble. I ended up in the same situation, but they knew to come to their parents. So they were able to stop, think, okay, I've got in trouble.

What can I do? And go forward by talking to the mom and your parents. Unfortunately, scams are brilliant. The scammers that do that will. Change and alternate and change their stories to fit what they're doing. And these kids need to know if it happens, what do I do? Then, after they tell their parents, what can parents do or have told you they've done that has helped? They, I mean, first of all, go to the police, do that, but they must save all. Don't delete anything. That's the most essential thing: not deleting. And then another thing is not sending the money. But make sure you save it, and they have all the records so that they can take it to the police so the police can move forward with researching it. We can ask the question again. 

That's a two-part question because, first of all, you want to report it. So you want to save all this stuff and move forward so that they can go to the police, and the police can do their job. But the other thing they need to do is support their kids. Their kids might have made a mistake, but they are a victim. So they need to be able there to help their kids. Yes, they made a mistake. Support them because these people took advantage of them. So you need to be there and support your kids because they did something, but they're a victim. And they need to recognize that someone took advantage of them and be there. for their child and then follow through and make sure that you report it so they can process it and see if they can find out what's going on. And when they say it, what do they need to register? They need to write, save the stuff, report the contact, and save the contact information so that the police can look at the phone and find out where the contact came from. That one's not one of ours. No, but you said it earlier with saving everything. So I think that the big one is just to save everything. 

They make sure they do not delete any pictures or conversations. The police need to look at that so they can track it down. Just stop replying and save everything, including communications and images sent.

Yes. They should. They need to know. When this happened to us, we were asked about his posts. And honestly, the last post that Ryan made. It was a picture of his future Farmers America team. These are the best officers to work with. They are simple. And I saw that. So those are the things. When it came up, I was confused because ICS posts they're straightforward and there. So it would be best if you were on all your kids' applications so you can look and see. Parental controls on our phones and on all of his applications still happened to us because we thought we had everything covered, but we didn't because there was a way around it. So we were on it, so you need to know that you should be involved and see what they're doing on social media because the more you know about what they're doing, the better chance you have of preventing anything from happening to your child.

So, I'm a sergeant with the San Jose Police Department in San Jose, California. I also supervise the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. This is a federally and state-funded task force. That helps combat the exploitation of children online. There are 61 task forces nationwide. Every state is covered by one of the task forces. Then, some bigger states, California, Texas, and Florida, have multiple. In California, we have five. Sacramento, Fresno, San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Diego. It's a nationwide task force; as you can imagine, on the internet, these crimes jump from border to border back east and the West Coast. So, we all work together to help combat the exploitation of children. San Jose has been the lead agency in the Silicon Valley Internet Crime Institute task force task force since 2002. 

So we have several programs. We work closely with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. They are the clearinghouse for tips that come in. So all of the ESPs, big companies, if they find any child exploitation on their servers, they have to report it. And it gets reported to NICMIC. Then, NICMIC will triage those tips and decide which task force the tips will come to. We also work with InHope, which is also part of NICMIC. And it's an organization with volunteers to help. Families that have been through similar situations cope with their grief. And then also with NIC-MIC is Take It Down. It is a program where they work with families to help children see pictures that have been exposed online and help them take them offline. We also work with the YWCA. The organization here locally. I'm pretty sure every state has it. They work with the victims of these crimes. We also have advocates from our DA's office to help us.

Well, my task force is 110 agencies covering 11 counties from Sonoma County down to 10 officers; I have five or four forensic officers, four investigative officers, an FBI agent, an analyst, and then myself and my lieutenant. So, about 11 people for San Jose, but we supervise the entire task force.

We usually get about a thousand cases a month from the cyber tip line to San Jose. And that's not including the cases generated by the public that get reported directly to the police department. These are just cases caused by the tip line through social media companies. Last year, we received 12,500 cases. This year, we're projected to receive about 15,000. So, the number of cases is increasing. It's been growing. So, in 2019, we had 3,400 cases. 2020, we got 7,000 cases. 21, we got 10,000 cases, then 22 last year, we had 12,500, and we've already surpassed that number in the previous year. So we're projected to reach 15,000 this year. I see, I see.

The numbers are all over. Usually, we see, most cases are 10 to 13, for the most part. There are older kids that up to just before they're 18, but we are starting to see a disturbing trend with very young children, all the way down to the ages of four and five, six years old, because they have, for instance, Roblox. Roblox is a social media app that is only used, or primarily used, by young children, and predators are starting to infiltrate Roblox as well. So we are beginning to see the age decrease to really young kids, but for the most part, I would say either nine to 13 or 10 to 13 is the most. 

Yeah, so in February of 2022, unfortunately, in the city of San Jose, we had a young man named Ryan Last who took his life. And in my organization, all suicides go to the homicide unit. And they started investigating the homicide unit, but then they started seeing some signs that there might have been a little bit of extortion going on. So, three days after the case happened, I was introduced to Pauline Stewart, and my organization took over the case. We worked on the case, and it happened on February 26th, 2022. We worked the case all year at the end of last year. I think it was November of 2022. We developed a suspect, and we were able to arrest that suspect. That suspect was in jail, and he was charged. And then, about two weeks ago, he was finally convicted and sentenced to prison. After this happened, while we were still working on the case, I brought it up to Pauline. the idea of sometime in the future joining our organization to help us get the message out. Right. I didn't think, you know, it was a little early, and I knew it was a little early, but she didn't think it was a little early. So, as soon as I brought up the topic to her, she decided she wanted to do it right now. So she joined our team. I see. She travels with us. We have a program called the Vigilant Parent Initiative. And it's a program developed by… my predecessor and analyst, Angelique Donzante, and Captain Brian Spears. It's a program for parents because we knew we were always messaging and talking to kids and doing internet safety day at school, but no one was doing anything with the parents. And we found that many parents, even if they worked in the industry, weren't very savvy regarding apps. They don't know how to use apps. They don't know all the apps are out there. So, the program is interactive. It was developed where we go to schools with parents, and we have iPads, and instead of just giving them a PowerPoint and talking to them, it's interactive. They get to go on the iPads, scroll through them and the apps, and then we teach them the dangers of the Internet and how to protect their kids on the Internet. Pauline's role in that is she now comes with us. We recorded a PSA with her, so when she could not go with us, we played the PSA at the end of the presentation. Then, the times that she could, she came at the end of the presentation and gave her a story. And we've noticed a big difference. I come in there, and I watch sometimes, and, you know, we're up there talking as adults, and we're just doing a PowerPoint, we're talking to them. But as soon as they see Pauline walk in the room, they are, because we don't tell them, as soon as they see her walk in the room, they know what will happen. So it just, I think it just makes the story real. I could sit there and talk to you all day, but it makes it much better when you have someone who's been through it. So she started doing that with us, which has developed into us traveling a lot. We travel nationwide and give presentations at the ICAC national conference. We have a national conference every year, and she gave a presentation there in June. And then we just got back from Dallas. They had a conference, and we flew out there and did the presentation. And next, we're going to Minnesota. So we're kind of a, myself and Angel Lee and Pauline, a little team, and you know, we try to get that message out there because we've come to the point, especially on these extortion cases, 99% of them, the suspects are in foreign countries, and it makes it a lot harder for us. And the cases are getting, they're not stopping, they're increasing. So we've determined we're not going to arrest our way out of this; we need to start doing prevention and education to get this to stop. So that is our program; that's what we're trying to push out there. And it has worked; we've had, when Ryan passed away, a couple of weeks after he passed away, we did one of the calls, one of our training via Zoom, because it was during COVID. And we had 1,100 people on the call. And our message was… say, tell somebody. Tell anybody, teacher, friend, your parents. If you don't want to tell your parents, tell somebody. And we've had success stories since then where parents have called us and said, I was on that call, and I went home, and I told my son, and he still fell for the, he still became a victim. But he came to me because we had talked about telling somebody, so now he felt comfortable. So we've had several stories like that, and that's all we're trying to do is if we can get young men to prevent them from sending stuff out like that. That's hard. So our next step is ensuring they understand it's just a picture. Tell somebody you can work your way out of it.

You know, so I've been a police officer for 27 years. I got involved in ICAC early on in my career in 2002. I had 17 victims, and the suspect went to trial and was convicted, and he was sentenced to 200 years, and that just kind of set me off on my journey. My boss then took me over his wing and taught me everything he knew; they're just very satisfying cases. They're terrible cases to work, but the outcome is very satisfying.

The most extensive advice I would give is several of them. One is to know what devices or apps your children are using. Do research on them. If your child has TikTok, get your own TikTok account so you know what's going on. If they have Snapchat, contact a Snapchat account. If they're young, If you're going to give your child a phone and they're eight years old, they should be your friend on TikTok. When they get older, 17 years old, that will probably not happen. You're probably not convinced your child to let you be a friend so they can see everything. But when they're young, if you put those parameters like, I will give you this phone, but here's the rules. I'm going to be on the phone. I can see everything you do when you're on these. But the most significant thing is researching these apps so you know what apps they're on. And put restrictions on the phones. So they cannot download an app by themselves. They're going to need your permission to put the restriction on, I mean, to put the app on the phone, to have a password. And the most significant thing is, especially for young kids, I tell this to parents all the time: if you're not ready to have a conversation with your child about sexual nature stuff, then it's not time for a phone because they are going to encounter it on the internet. Period. Every kid is going to experience it. That's just what's going on now. This is the culture we live in. So if you're not ready to have that conversation about that, they're going to run into that stuff. And lastly, make sure they understand that if something does happen to them, they know where to go. Tell somebody. That is our most significant message out there: Tell somebody. If it happens to you, tell somebody. Because somebody in your friend group or your family or your school, somebody is going to report it. We have a lot of cases that third parties report, and usually, it's a friend. Several friends find out, but there's always that one friend who says you know this doesn't seem right; I'm going to tell somebody. So that's how a lot of cases are reported.

Well cases, the most significant challenge for six-distortion cases is that the suspects aren't in the United States. So right now, sextortion is out of control in this country, and 99% of the suspects are out of the country in foreign countries. Most of them are from Nigeria and the Ivory Coast. We do not have an extradition treaty with the Ivory Coast, so there's not much we can do there. We are currently working with the Nigerian government and have made progress. But that is a big challenge because we're just local police officers. We don't have the power to go to other jurisdictions. But there are all kinds of challenges because it's the Internet. People use VPNs. There are a lot of ways to hide yourself on the Internet. So, it makes it very challenging when you're trying to investigate these cases. The other one is there are so many different apps out there, and the number of issues coming in gets to the point where it's overwhelming.

We don't have the workforce to investigate them because the numbers are so high. I mean, 12,500 cases in one year. Not all of them come to San Jose. We triage them, and we send them where they need to go. But everyone's coming in. Everyone involves a victim. So, it becomes very challenging. And the Internet is growing. A new one emerges as soon as we think we can figure out how to work a case on a specific app. And it's just hard to keep up. It's scary. It is. We're slowly moving towards even more difficult times when AI comes in. It's already starting to go in a little bit, but when AI comes in full charge, it's going to change everything because some of this AI stuff that's out there right now, you cannot tell the difference if it is a natural person or not.

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