Exclusive: Mayorkas' newest weapon against the explosion of online child sex exploitation

WASHINGTON – Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas says his office is ramping up efforts to fight the explosive increase in online sexual exploitation of children.

Mayorkas noted that last year alone, there were more than 36 million reports of suspected online child sexual exploitation and abuse, up from 32 million in 2022.

By comparison, there were 1 million such reports to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in 2014, long before nearly 95% of children ages 13 to 17 reported using social media.

In exclusive interviews, Mayorkas − and multiple DHS officials, from a front-line agent in Tennessee to a top transnational organized crime-fighting supervisor − provided USA TODAY with shocking details of crimes against kids: livestreamed sexual assaults and even rapes of toddlers, predators grooming unsuspecting children on popular gaming sites, and would-be molesters targeting underage prey on social media and using geolocation apps to show up at their schools to meet them.

On Wednesday, Mayorkas announced the launch of what he said was the first national public awareness campaign that brings together government and private sector partners focused on education and prevention of online child sexual exploitation and abuse.

The campaign's mission, Mayorkas said, is to mobilize young people, parents, educators and community leaders to learn the signs of this crime in its many forms, what they can do to prevent it, how to report it to law enforcement, and how they can support survivors.

“It is a heinous crime that has not only spread, it’s grown in the number of victims, the number of perpetrators online – not only across the country from coast to coast, border to border, but internationally across the globe,” Mayorkas said.

“It is incumbent upon us and partners in communities across the country to raise the profile of this scourge, to raise awareness, to educate children who spend time online, their parents and trusted adults in their communities so we can prevent harm from occurring, and, importantly, also hold perpetrators accountable.”

Some of the crimes are so violent and so troubling, Mayorkas said, that “I don't think I should get into the specifics. Let me just say that it is beyond most people's imagination.”

The campaign, called Know2Protect, partners federal investigators with nonprofit organizations, private sector companies and state and local law enforcement agencies. NCMEC and its CyberTip Report hotline − 1-800-843-5678 − are also involved. Other founding partners include online gaming companies like Roblox and social media giants like Snapchat.

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas at the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C. on April 15, 2024.
Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas at the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C. on April 15, 2024.

A multifront assault on online child exploitation

Mayorkas and the DHS last year elevated child exploitation to one of six formal “mission sets” for the department, the first one added since 2010. The others are border security, counterterrorism, administering the nation’s immigration system, policing cyberspace and disaster response.

The new initiative focuses on multiple fronts, including awareness campaigns, education programs in schools and community centers, and collaboration with technology and gaming companies to create safer online environments for children. DHS is working with tech industry leaders to promote online safety and is negotiating similar agreements with possibly dozens of partners, said DHS Know2Protect campaign director Kate Kennedy.

Together, they will provide parents, caregivers and children themselves with the tools they need “to turn their fear into awareness, vigilance and protection from the dark realities of online exploitation,” Kennedy said.

A massive growth of online ‘sexploitation’

Know2Protect hopes to unify DHS efforts to thwart online child sexual exploitation and abuse.

It will be led by Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI, which serves as the principal investigative arm of DHS and protects the public from crimes of victimization, including child sexual exploitation.

HSI works to investigate, apprehend and prosecute offenders in the U.S. and to identify, protect and support victims. It also investigates transnational child sexual abuse, with dozens of bureaus overseas that go after those traveling internationally from the U.S. to engage in “child sex tourism,” or illicit sexual conduct with minors.

“The online exploitation of children has become a global problem with devastating impacts on children around the world,” said HSI Executive Associate Director Katrina Berger. “The disruption of these heinous criminal enterprises that are producing and distributing child exploitation material online must be stopped.  But law enforcement cannot do this alone."

An 'all of DHS' effort

The U.S. Secret Service, also part of DHS, will join Know2Protect with its Childhood Smart Program, created in partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, that educates parents, children, and teens about internet and personal safety.

DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, administers SchoolSafety.gov, a collaborative interagency website that provides information, resources, guidance and best practices on a range of school safety topics, including online exploitation.

And DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate will contribute technical and scientific expertise, including leading-edge forensic tools and technologies to identify and thwart online predators.

Horrific crimes 'that can't be ignored'

In recent months, top DHS officials have signed up a broad array of private-sector partners for the signature initiative, including Google, Meta, Snap, Roblox, NASCAR, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, Boy Scouts of America and the National Police Athletic League.

And because child exploitation knows no boundaries, DHS is working closely with its global counterparts, including the European Commission and the "Five Eyes" partners like Britain and Canada.

Globally, the volume of child sexual abuse material has increased by 87% over the past five years, according to the 2023 WeProtect Global Threat Assessment.

Handcuffs on criminal
Handcuffs on criminal

That list of partners is expected to grow in the coming months as DHS reaches out to government and private sector entities that can spread the word about the threat – and the ways in which it is responding, Mayorkas and the other DHS officials said.

Together, they hope to address the multifaceted nature of online child exploitation, including the fact that perpetrators often hold positions of trust within communities such as teachers, religious leaders and police officers.

Teens killing themselves because 'their life is over'

Another focus of Know2Protect: the ominous trend of using artificial intelligence to generate child sexual exploitation material. The DHS officials said that becomes a gateway for predators who then move on to abusing real-life children.

Also on Know2Protect’s front burner: the skyrocketing prevalence of what’s known as “financial sextortion” of minors. That’s when cyber-savvy perpetrators overseas – especially in West Africa – pretend to be teenage boys or girls and persuade others on Instagram and other social media apps to share sexually explicit images of themselves.

“And as soon as they do that, the organized crime group will take a screenshot of all of this child's contacts in their social media app and say we’re going to send these photos out to everyone if you don’t send us $500 or $1,000,” said Dennis Fetting, supervisory special agent at Homeland Security Investigations in Nashville, Tennessee.

Austin Spain looks at his Facebook Messenger inbox on his phone Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. He has two decoy pages that he uses in his search for sexual predators online.
Austin Spain looks at his Facebook Messenger inbox on his phone Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. He has two decoy pages that he uses in his search for sexual predators online.

He said some teens panic and pay. There has also been a sharp increase in teen suicide, the agent said, “especially these high school boys taking their lives because they view in their own juvenile mind that their life is over.”

One of the founding partners is Snap, which plans to share Know2Protect resources with the millions of teens who use its popular Snapchat app to communicate.

“These horrific crimes can’t be ignored – they need to be discussed in the halls of government, at boardroom tables and at kitchen tables,” Jacqueline Beauchere, Snap’s global head of Platform Safety, told USA TODAY.  “Young people need to be attuned to online sexual risks, and adults need to understand the issues so they can help young people in crisis.”

If you have information on missing children or teens, call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-843-5678. (1-800-THE LOST). To report child sexual exploitation, go to https://report.cybertip.org/.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: DHS Chief Alejandro Mayorkas targets online child sex exploitation