ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Raj Parekh, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia (EDVA), announced today the launch of “UnMasked,” a community-based educational outreach and prevention program in Virginia dedicated to raising awareness about the prevalence of online sexual exploitation involving children and young adults.
“Online predators target some of the most vulnerable members of our society and can cause a devastating impact on our communities and loved ones,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Raj Parekh. “The first step to fighting back is awareness—educating our youth and parents with information on how to prevent these crimes from happening. UnMasked will help achieve these goals by establishing a community-based program that is designed to raise awareness and combat the often-hidden scourge of cyber abuse.”
UnMasked is a multi-disciplinary partnership of local, state, federal, and non-profit stakeholders committed to raising awareness of threats and resources through education. The initiative provides a platform to educate middle school, high school, and college students, along with parents, teachers, and the broader community, about the potential dangers of the internet. UnMasked presentations will use real-life case examples of online sexual exploitation, as illustrated by law enforcement agents, prosecutors, and survivors of these crimes.
The program name, “UnMasked,” alludes to the often hidden and clandestine nature of online sexual exploitation. Not only are internet predators able to use online identities as a mask to lure in their victims, but those victims are often also “masked” as a result of the fear and stigma that can accompany cyber exploitation. This educational initiative seeks to address both sides of these issues to “unmask” and expose these invisible dangers. The program will also provide a safe environment and opportunity for students and adults to disclose if they have been victims of online exploitation.
The UnMasked initiative will involve educational presentations at schools, colleges, and universities throughout the Eastern District of Virginia. The core curriculum is provided by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s (NCMEC) NetSmartz program. Participants and others in the audience will hear personal stories by real survivors, along with presentations from experts in the investigative, forensic, and mental health fields. These events, which are set to begin during the 2021–2022 school year, will include interactive components, as well as live and video testimonials from survivors cautioning students about the dangers of online communications. UnMasked will offer lessons learned, tips, and best practices on how to avoid being subjected to exploitation, as well as what to do if they or someone they know becomes a victim.
According to NCMEC, online exploitation exploded in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic as social isolation and online activity increased. NCMEC’s “CyberTipline” received more than 21.4 million reports of child sexual exploitation from electronic service providers in 2020, as well as over 303,000 reports of online sexual exploitation from the public. This represents a 27% annual increase in reporting from electronic service providers, as well as a more than doubling in reports from the public. According to NCMEC, online exploitation encompasses a broad range of offenses, including “online enticement of children for sexual acts, child sexual molestation, child sexual abuse material, child sex tourism, child sex trafficking, unsolicited obscene materials sent to a child, misleading domain names, and misleading words or digital images on the internet.” Cyber exploitation often begins with perpetrators contacting potential victims through social media applications, video games, and websites, typically using false online profiles, and such conduct can involve both online sexual exploitation and in-person sexual abuse.
EDVA’s partners in this community-based initiative will include the Washington, D.C., Richmond, and Norfolk Field Offices of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI); the U.S. Department of Defense’s Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) Washington, D.C., and Norfolk Field Offices; and NCMEC, among other law enforcement, educational, and community organizations.
“In those unfortunate instances when these horrific crimes occur, EDVA will prosecute the perpetrators to the fullest extent of the law, seek justice for all victims, and send a strong message to deter others from engaging in this reprehensible conduct,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Parekh.
To report an incident involving online sexual exploitation, call 1-800-843-5678 or submit a report at report.cybertip.org. The CyberTipline is operated by NCMEC in partnership with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. To request an UnMasked event at your school or organization, please contact EDVA’s Community Outreach Coordinator at USAVAE-UnMasked@usdoj.gov.
A copy of this press release is located on the website of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia.