FRESNO, California (KGPE) — After an undercover sting arrests dozens of potential sexual predators from all over the state, Central Valley law enforcement agencies are urging parents to remind their children the dangers of the internet.
Especially since people of all ages have all been going online more due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, among others, worry that more children are vulnerable than normal.
At a press conference Friday, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office presented 34 mugshots on two boards. The arrests were a result of Operation COVID Chat Down, which ran from July 20 to Aug. 2. All suspects have been charged for trying to meet children for sex.
A notable arrest from the bunch, 55-year-old Thomas Binford of Clovis. He’s a registered sex offender, who according to Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, was in possession of child pornography when he was arrested.
“These people are out there. They’re real, they exist, and they’re looking for your children and your grandchildren to exploit,” she said.
This investigation from the Central California Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, or ICAC, had detectives pose as 12 and 13-year-old boys and girls on various social apps.
The suspects allegedly sent the detectives graphic messages and images before setting up a meet up. At the designated time and place, detectives would be waiting to arrest the suspects.
“There were 190 online contacts who continued to chat [with our detectives], even after they knew they were talking with a minor. So, these folks knew exactly what they were doing,” said Tatum King, special agent in charge with Homeland Security Investigations.
Aside from numerous Central Valley law enforcement agencies and entities, agencies from the Central Coast and Bay Area were also part of the operation.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up in spring, internet usage increased, particularly among children.
J. Colin Petersen, the CEO and president of tech advisory company JIT.Outsource, said parents need to have that difficult conversation with their kids — stress how people online may try to sexually victimize them.
“We’re placing some very powerful things in the hands of children. We wouldn’t put our children in front of a stove without teaching them the flame is hot and that they can get burned — online, it is very similar,” Petersen said.
While 34 arrests sounds like a lot already, Mims and the others at the press conference know it’s just the tip of the iceberg. She said Operation COVID Chat Down is ongoing.
“I can’t help but think about who are we missing, how many children are being victimized by suspects like this and we don’t know about them,” Mims said.
There are several tip lines to report suspicious online behavior:
- National Center for Missing & Exploited Children: report.cybertip.org or 1-800-843-5678
- U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement: 1-866-347-2423
- Valley Crime Stoppers: valleycrimestoppers.org or 559-498-7867
Of course, you can also alert your local law enforcement agencies of any suspicious behavior.