Crucial efforts to educate on cybercrimes against children

Christie Hirota (in above photo) is a Sacramento County Sheriff agent assigned to the Sacramento Valley High Tech Crimes Task Force for the past 10 of her 21 active years.

Delving into the somber reality of digital crimes against children, Agent Christie Hirota of the Sacramento Valley High Tech Crimes Task Force offers insight into the insidious felonies that are infiltrating phones and computers at an alarming rate. With the ever-present and growing threat of Internet and cybercrimes, Catholic Herald magazine presents part one of a two-part feature. The second part will be published in the March-April 2024 issue.

“Our main priority is cyber tips that we get from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children,” Christie explains of the work that consumes her days as a Sacramento County Sheriff agent assigned to the Sacramento Valley High Tech Crimes Task Force for the past 10 of her 21 active years.

As the largest of five internet crimes task forces in California, spanning 30 of 58 counties, any thought of a “slow period” is illusory. Relentless cyber tip activity represents the key indicator of increasing digital crime volume and requires vigilance on all fronts.

“Originally in 2016, we had just over 1,000 tips” per year forwarded to Sacramento Valley, Christie says of the first year of documented tip activity. Today, tip volume has skyrocketed to more than 11,000 per year.

Christie details how one dedicated task force staffer manages all inbound tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Tips come from public reports but also from electronic service providers who are legally required to report blatant images or suspected evidence of child exploitation. A cadre of over 60 agents from multiple law enforcement agencies throughout this service area stands ready for the ongoing effort to investigate every tip in collaboration with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Homeland Security Investigations.

When she’s not in the field pursuing leads and tracking perpetrators, Christie educates by visiting churches, schools and other “public forums,” reaching out to parents and children to talk candidly about pervasive threats. As a parent of a 12-year-old, the severity of the issue hits home as she applies her recommendations to her own household.

“Sextortion is rampant now,” she discloses, describing the shocking details of offenders who phish phone apps, messaging and internet platforms tricking their targets on seemingly innocent applications. Unsuspecting victims find themselves prey to blackmailing culprits who groom children and teens, convincing them first to share explicit photos, then forcing them to send money, gift cards or parents’ credit card numbers. Threats to expose images to family and friends characterize the coercion, leaving frightened youth scrambling to abide. Hidden in the anonymity of the digital universe, children often believe the criminal to be a peer. Yet, most often, it is an adult posing … befriending … grooming … extorting.

“Our kids are being victimized,” Christie says, incensed with the reality that these crimes creep in and are well underway by the time the task force receives tips. The best defense is caution.

“The main thing I always tell parents is that they need to communicate with their kids,” she insists, suggesting that even the youngest students should be hearing age-appropriate messages in advance of their someday usage of digital tools.

“Start off when they’re in kindergarten,” Christie suggests to prepare young children with basic instructions. “Don’t talk to strangers, don’t send pictures,” she says, noting that as children get older, messages evolve. She likens the dialogue to how parents prepare young drivers. Teens receive keys to a car only after proper instruction. The same, she encourages, should be true for digital devices.

“Let them know what this phone or computer is for and set expectations,” she implores, urging parents to limit apps and teach internet safety openly, never settling for a passive acceptance of societal norms.

Taking vigilance a step further, Christie suggests that parents also employ additional proactive measures to avert potential risks and the threat of extortion or sextortion. Parents and guardians should monitor minors’ electronic devices, reviewing them, checking messages and monitoring history and apps. Discussing these efforts as safeguard actions teaches children and teens overall awareness and vigilance.

“Every single app has the potential to be bad,” Christie warns, noting that perpetrators have ways to undermine even the most benign media. She shares that many monitoring apps exist on the market for families to review and assess. While the task force does not recommend a single product, Christie prefers specific features that allow “searching for keywords like curse words, grooming words or even drugs.” She adds that a feature that scans for skin tone can alert parents to any “sending or receiving of photos of nudity.” Lastly, she indicates that some apps monitor all text messages coming in and out of the home.

Christie reiterates: “Tell your children not to talk to people they do not know, and to keep their information private.”

“Let your kids know that if they do get into a sticky situation, you’re there for them,” she emphasizes. She cites unfortunate cases of parents condemning children in these situations rather than intervening with love, support and understanding of their victimization. Children and teens who surmise angry or volatile parental reactions are less likely to turn to their parents therefore thwarting chances of finding and arresting perpetrators early.

“They need to know that you’re open to talk to them,” Christie says, indicating that in extreme cases some youth have taken their own lives believing that their parents would be furious and seeing no way out of the extortion.

If parents, guardians or family members become aware of a cyber threat, Christie explains several ways to report the crime.

“In an emergency, they need to call 911,” she confirms, indicating that an in-progress threat to physical safety requires immediate action. Other suspicious activity can be reported to local law enforcement or to the National Center’s CyberTipline. Both options channel all tips back to the Sacramento Valley High Tech Crimes Task Force, Christie assures, but also notes great value in the CyberTipline’s singular focus to act expeditiously, and to document and record all data reported thoroughly per the nuances of cybercrimes.

Christie shares that the bulk of these crimes fall most often upon children between the ages of nine and 13. The next tier of targets points to teens between the ages of 14 and 16.

“There is nothing in California law requiring education on this,” Christie warns, stressing that proactive efforts need to occur within families. Schools, churches and other organizations also can invite speakers to make age-appropriate presentations to all grade levels and parents.

“I am all for getting the word out to parents to protect their children,” Christie says, wearied by the intensity of her work but nonetheless committed to long days spent catching cybercriminals.