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Reports of child porn crimes are rising across Central Florida

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported approximately 4,000 cases for Central Florida in 2020 and nearly 6,000 in 2021.

TAMPA, Fla. — Children are spending more time online these days. There are more gaming and social media platforms than ever before. 

At the same time, a national database points to a growing number of reports of child pornography crimes nationwide – including in the Tampa Bay region.

Child porn is generally defined as any image or video that sexually exploits children.

From the dark web, to the most popular social media platforms, reports of such content being spread are being increasingly reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

In 2020, there were 4,053 reports linked to Central Florida. In 2021, there were 5,966. 

Each of those reports is handed over to the Central Florida Internet Crimes Against Children division (ICAC). 

Florida Department of Law Enforcement Assistant Special Agent in Charge J Scanlan leads the area's ICAC task force.

"We either proactively or historically investigate those allegations to try to lock up those who are either producing the pornography or sharing the pornography, and are committed to arresting them and prosecuting them," Scanlan said.

However, with thousands of reports across Central Florida, only small fraction have led to arrests. 

Crime Tracker 10 reached out to each county 10 Tampa Bay covers (Hillsborough, Pinellas, Polk, Pasco, Manatee, Sarasota, Hernando, Citrus, Hardee and Highlands) to learn how many people were arrested on charges related to child pornography in the past few years. 

In Hillsborough, Polk, Sarasota, and Highlands, there were at least a dozen or a few dozen arrests in 2021.

In Citrus, Hernando, Pasco and Pinellas there were fewer than a dozen arrests in 2021. 

This data was not available in Manatee and Hardee Counties.

Credit: 10 Tampa Bay

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Asked about the discrepancy between reports and arrests, Scanlan said it's consistently challenging to track down online criminals.

"The technology is always changing and the bad guys are pretty savvy to some of the law enforcement techniques, so that's difficult as well," Scanlan explained.

That is why a significant part of the ICAC's work is preventative, like educating kids and parents.

"It really just starts with being involved. As a parent, you should insist on having access to your children's accounts. You should know what sites they are visiting, what applications they have on their phone, what videos games they're playing," said Scanlan. 

He says to be particularly warry of any platform with a chatting function, suggests taking advantage of parental controls, and most importantly, talking to your kids.

"One of the most important things is communicating with your children," Scanlan said. "You aren't suspicious of them; you're educating them about the realities of being online. That should foster some trust with your child to come to you if something uncomfortable does happen online." 

While child pornography may elicit thoughts of the "dark web," it's not limited to those spaces. This kind of material is popping up on mainstream social media platforms at an alarming rate. 

Thousands of images, flagged as child pornography, are removed from the most popular social media platforms every day, including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok. And those reports are on the rise. 

According to Facebook's reports, the platform flagged 37.6 million pieces of content under "child nudity and sexual exploitation" in 2019. In 2020, 35.9 million piece were flagged. In 2021, a staggering 77.5 million piece were flagged. 

As reports have gone up, Scanlan says the average age of victims has gone down, going to show anyone can be a target.

"There really isn't a sort of victimology," said Scanlan. "It really just depends on the suspect and what they're looking for." 

It's illegal to knowingly produce, distribute, receive or possess sexually explicit material of children, and in Florida, this heinous crime is met with severe punishment. 

"Florida's laws are very strict, and it can be anywhere from minimum mandatory sentences up to lifetime sentences depending on the severity of the crime," said Scanlan. 

If you are looking to report crimes related to child pornography, you can call NCMEC's anonymous tip-line at (800) 843-5678. You can also share a tip online at Cybertipline.org

You can also make reports to local authorities through it's 'see something, say something' program, by calling 855-FLA-SAFE.

For additional resources, visit SecureFlorida.org or ICACtaskforce.org/internetsafety

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