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Tips on internet crimes against Wyoming minors have risen dramatically in recent years

Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation

Wyoming’s ICAC (Internet Crimes Against Children) task force, a part of the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, has experienced a significant increase in the number of tips that have been submitted over the past several years. It comes as several Wyoming teens have been the victims of sexually-related extortion schemes, more commonly known as sextortion.

“The vast majority of our work is at this point reactive, and we get what we call cyber tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children,” Wyoming ICAC commander Chris McDonald said. “In 2018, we had 199 cyber tips in total for that year, which was [a] pretty decent amount, [and amounted to a] little less than one a day. Well, in the last five years, we've experienced about a 298 and half percent increase. Last year, we were right at 800 cyber tips.”

A cyber tip is a request or a case lead that often originates from activity on social media sites such as Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, or TikTok. By law, these platforms are required to report what’s known as CSAM material – or child sexual assault material, including child pornography – to the National Child Victim Identification Program (NCVIP). NCVIP then seeks to determine where that information comes from using geo location as to where the victim(s) and perpetrator(s) are located. It is then referred to ICAC units in each state for them to follow up on.

“If it shows that it originates in Wyoming, or the suspect that's either sharing or possessing or any of those things [are] in Wyoming, that is then sent to me,” he said. “I actually vet every single cyber tip [that comes in] in the state of Wyoming.”

Wyoming’s ICAC unit consists of a handful of agents and one forensic investigator. The increase in tips in recent years has increased their workloads to a significant degree even with the assistance of outside agencies.

“We also work [with] our partners with both the FBI and [U.S. Department of] Homeland Security, which are great partners but they also have their own caseload to work, and we work a lot with local agencies as kind of our point of contact. What we call affiliate agencies,” he said. “But [at] the end of the day, there's six total investigators that do this full time in the state of Wyoming, so that's our biggest challenge going forward is just the sheer volume of work.”

Last year, at least 30 victims were identified by ICAC in Wyoming. This includes at least six minors in the Cowboy State that were victims of an international sextortion scheme. The perpetrator, a 24-year-old Bangladeshi national living in Malaysia, had victimized several hundred minors in the U.S. and around the world.

The uptick in tips has created its own issues for ICAC. The agency must prioritize its resources on how it pursues and investigates.

“That doesn't really address our inability to work any proactive case right now,” McDonald said. “Those are very resource heavy. And right now, with all the tips and with the resources we have, we have to really kind of triage what we can do.”

McDonald attributed the pandemic as a contributing factor in the rise in tips because it forced people indoors, which naturally led to more time spent on the internet for victims and predators. Another reason is that social media platforms have done a better job reporting these incidents to authorities, which have been aided with the use of artificial intelligence and photo DNA. Wyoming ICAC received the most tips in their history in 2022.

The legislature also plays an important role in ICAC’s mission.

“Nobody's okay with children being victimized in the state of Wyoming,” he said. “I think our legislature does a pretty good job. I'm just not sure that we've done a great job of educating [the public about ICAC’s efforts].”

Thus far, tips are coming in at a similar rate this year as they were in the first few months of 2022. The majority of the increased tips are attributable to sextortion.

“We have bad actors out there that work in groups that will target what we've seen, [and] the biggest increase in our victim pool is male children,” McDonald said. “We have suspects out there that convinced these kids [that they] are talking to someone they're interested in talking to [and then have them] providing lewd images.”

The increase of male minors being the target of sextortion may have proven to predators that they’re easier targets, though McDonald said he doesn’t necessarily know why it’s been increasing for males. Older women preying upon minor males has proven a successful tactic for predators, he added.

Sextortionists may demand payment from the victims to keep from releasing images or photos. The money amounts vary but can often be as high as $500, though McDonald has seen this as low as a $10 gift card per week. Despite being the victim of a crime, those who have been targeted may feel embarrassed or afraid to ask for help. Destigmatizing this and ensuring that victims are taken care of is one of the primary objectives of ICAC.

“Our biggest thing is to reach out right away and to ensure that the victim is safe because what we've also seen is a lot of suicidal ideation in victims across the country, so we prioritize those very highly,” he said. “We make sure we get services to those victims right away.”

Prosecuting those responsible can prove challenging. At the local level, ICAC strives to have perpetrators prosecuted, though this is much more difficult to do when those responsible are foreign nationals residing outside of the U.S.

The FBI and Wyoming ICAC have provided information to students, parents, and guardians on how to keep minors safe from these schemes. There were more than 7,000 reports of sextortion per FBI statistics in 2022, including over 3,000 minor victims. More than a dozen victims died by suicide.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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