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FBI warns of increased child-exploitation risks during COVID-19 crisis

Parents are advised to "communicate with their children about appropriate contact with adults and watch for any changes in behavior.
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SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — The FBI called on San Diego-area parents Wednesday to beware of the potential for heightened child exploitation dangers amid school closures stemming from the coronavirus crisis.

Youngsters forced to stay at home to protect themselves and their families from exposure to COVID-19 "potentially have an increased online presence and/or (may) be in a position that puts them at an inadvertent risk," the federal agency warned.

"Online sexual exploitation comes in many forms," FBI officials noted in a prepared statement. "Individuals may coerce victims into providing sexually explicit images or videos of themselves, often in compliance with offenders' threats to post the images publicly or send (them) to victims' friends and family."

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Some pedophiles "may make casual contact with children online, gain their trust and introduce sexual conversation that increases in egregiousness over time," the agency cautioned. "Ultimately, this activity may result in (offenders') maintaining an online relationship that includes sexual conversation and the exchange of illicit images, (and) eventually ... meeting the child in person."

In light of the heightened risks, parents are advised to "communicate with their children about appropriate contact with adults and watch for any changes in behavior, including an increase in nightmares, withdrawn behavior, angry outbursts, anxiety, depression, not wanting to be left alone with an individual and sexual knowledge," according to the FBI.

The federal investigative service also advised parents to take the following steps:

-- discuss internet safety with children;

-- review and approve games and apps before they are downloaded;

-- make sure privacy settings are set to the strictest level possible for online gaming systems and other electronic devices;

-- monitor children's use of the internet and keep computers in a non- private room;

-- check youngsters' social-media profiles and what they post online;

-- explain to children that images posted online most likely will remain on the internet permanently;

-- make sure minors know that anyone who asks a child to engage in sexually explicit activity online should be reported to a parent, guardian or other trusted adult, as well as law enforcement authorities;

-- teach children about personal boundaries and awareness of their surroundings;

-- encourage open child-parent communication; and

-- be mindful of who is watching children during childcare and babysitting situations, and on such occasions as play dates and overnight visits with friends.

"If your child discloses abuse, immediately contact local law enforcement for assistance," the FBI advised.

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