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Posing as a young woman on Facebook, a 26-year-old man from Lincoln duped five teenage boys from Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa into sharing explicit photos and videos of themselves.

In another recent case, after meeting a 12-year-old Georgia girl on the smartphone game Clash of Clans, a 37-year-old man from Omaha convinced the girl to send him nude photos of herself. He claimed he was 18.

And in a third case, nude photos a teenage Nebraska girl sent to an adult were traded and used as leverage to get her to send more to another man.

Online child-exploitation cases like these are signs of a new age, in which pedophiles have unprecedented access to children, says Nebraska State Patrol Sgt. Cory Townsend, who heads the state's Internet Crimes Against Children task force.

High-speed internet, social media networks and pervasive access to camera-equipped smartphones among young people have enabled adults looking to exploit them.

"When I first started (17 years ago), the internet safety message was about not letting your child have a computer in their bedroom," said Lindsey Olson of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "Kids have computers in their pockets now."

Reports to the center's CyberTipline have skyrocketed in recent years — from 1.1 million in 2014 to 10.2 million in 2017. And this year's figure has already matched last year's, said Olson, who oversees the center's Exploited Children Division.

Computer programs help filter those tips and review them before directing them to state task forces like Nebraska's, which receives help from 61 law enforcement agencies in the state.

Last year, Townsend's task force fielded 539 tips from the center. Those cases are vetted to determine which ones involve a minor sharing with another minor — meaning a parental conversation might resolve it — and which ones involve more serious crimes.

The task force conducted 308 investigations and arrested 44 people in 2017, he said.

Most of those cases start with alerts from social media or parents.

More proactive operations, in which investigators pretend to be children to nab would-be predators on the internet, account for about 10 percent of the task force's workload, Townsend said.

Those are time-intensive cases, and investigators can't be the ones to take a conversation in a sexual direction.

"It's like fishing," he said. "You're going to talk to a bunch of them that don't pan out. And that's good."

An analysis of more than 5,800 CyberTipline reports found the vast majority involved offenders making direct contact with children, mostly girls, who were often in their mid-to-late teens.

Sixty percent of the perpetrators requested sexually explicit images, and about one-third were seeking sex, the analysis found.

Nationally and locally, law enforcement have seen cases of so-called "sextortion" rise.

In these cases, a perpetrator blackmails a child to obtain photos, money or sex, according to the center.

Sometimes, just the threat of leaking photos or starting rumors about a minor to her or his significant other has furthered the coercion, Townsend said.

"Sextortion" can show just how damaging sending a nude photo to a stranger can be, he said. The child loses all control of what happens with that photo, and sometimes those images haunt the child long into their future.

Often in these cases, children will try to handle everything by themselves, when they should turn to a trusted adult, Olson said. That means an open dialogue with children can help ensure their online safety.

"The parent is going to be the No. 1 safeguard against whether or not their kids meet an online predator," Townsend said. "Once that person finds your child, you're probably the only one that can break that."

He said parents should set ground rules about what apps children can have on their phones and where they can and can't take them.

"Children are going to make mistakes, and the important thing is that they have somewhere to go and someone to turn to if something bad happens,” Olson said.

Townsend spoke with his own children after an attempted kidnapping in south Lincoln last month, he said.

On June 25, a man tried to pull a girl into his car, but she fought him off, according to Lincoln police. The culprit hasn't been identified, but the case remains under investigation, a police spokeswoman said last week.

Cases like this are rare these days, but will never go away, Townsend said.

"He doesn't have to have the van anymore," Townsend said. "He just has to hit you up on that app you have on your phone."

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On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.



Riley Johnson reports on breaking news and public safety issues in Lincoln and southeast Nebraska.

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