5:25 AM, Jul 16, 2013

ATLANTA — Federal agents announced Monday they arrested 255 people — three of them in the Atlanta area, and three of them elsewhere in Georgia — suspected of victimizing at least 61 children online.

The suspects were arrested in June during a nationwide crackdown against the exploitation of children on the Internet.

“There’s a tremendous amount of it out there,” said Brock Nicholson in Atlanta, one of the top investigators in charge of the operation, who said agents were “finding the worst of the worst.”

Nicholson is Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Georgia and the Carolinas. His agents joined other agents across the country in the operation, called “Operation iGuardian.”

“We rescued 61 victims of abuse, which is our main focus,” Nicholson said.

Agents who conducted the sweep said one of the ways predators lured children is through “sextortion.”

“Sextortion is one of the tools,” Nicholson said, “where basically an individual will, through the Internet, meet children at various websites, whether it be through a video game website,” or social media sites. “They’re going to where the kids are,” he said, and they befriend the kids.  “And they get the child comfortable with them… convince the child to do something they know that’s going to seem wrong, then threaten the child… then this sextortion thing comes in, ‘Hey look,’ you know, ‘I’ll tell your parents you’re looking at this unless you do A, B, C,'” and the predators ultimately make their demands, such as demanding that the children take sexually-explicit photos of themselves, or demanding that the children meet them. The children comply because they are too frightened to say no.

“You have to remember, they’re going after a very young mind,” Nicholson said, and the predators “are very skilled at getting children to do things that are absolutely heinous.”

Nicholson said Homeland Security Investigators are launching “an aggressive outreach program, with schools and parents’ groups, and anyone that will listen,” an education campaign that will begin in about a month; they will take every opportunity to meet parents to underscore the urgency of keeping their children out of harm’s way online.

One way of protecting them:  monitoring their children’s Internet use constantly. A tall order, but possible, he said.

“It’s so important that parents not worry about their child feeling like [the parents are] overdoing it with checking on them. You can’t overdo it enough, you need to not only see what your child is doing on the Internet, you need to teach them what to look for, and warn them that there are very bad individuals. I have two daughters, and trust me, I have had that conversation with them ad infinitum — ‘It’s not that I don’t trust you, I don’t trust the other folks that are out on the Internet.'”

The charges against the suspects are felonies, and “some sentences even go up to life,” if convicted, Nicholson said. Investigators continue to work the cases they developed in June. “we’ll follow up with the folks that we’ve arrested and see if we can determine if there are any more victims. We’ll certainly use every bit of energy we have to see if there are other folks that the guys were working with, or exchanging with. But we do this every day,” not just during special sweeps like the one in June.

“We get a great feeling of accomplishment when we can get one of these people off the street.”

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