Series: Protecting your kids from child predators

SEATTLE -- Investigators call it one of the biggest dangers to your children – predators hoping to exploit them online, through the apps on their phones, and in real life.

Across the state of Washington and the country, task forces aimed at tracking down child predators are faced with a mounting number of cases, but have few investigators dedicated full-time to stopping child exploitation.

“We’re overwhelmed,” said Sgt. Carlos Rodriguez with the Washington State Patrol’s Missing and Exploited Children Task Force, which is made up of just two detectives and himself. “You could give me 50, 60, 70 people and there'd still be tons of work.”

Since mid-2015, his task force has carried out a number of undercover stings targeting buyers and sellers of child sex. The operation, nicknamed “Net Nanny,” has so far resulted in the arrest of more than 60 suspects and the recovery of 18 child victims.

(The work of the Washington State Patrol’s Missing and Exploited Children Task Force is funded, in part, by donations from the public. To help, you can find information on how to donate, here.)

“I’d love it if I didn’t have to do this job,” Sgt. Rodriguez said. “But the sad fact is I do.”

In Seattle, the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force has seen an “emerging trend” of cases involving predators hoping to exploit children through common apps on their smartphones.

“New apps are coming on all the time, and along with those apps are people who are looking for kids and know how to exploit those kids,” said Seattle Police Capt. Mike Edwards, with ICAC. “This allows millions of people to have access to your child without you knowing it. Literally, millions.”

In some cases, predators posing as teenagers will convince victims to send them suggestive photos, then use that photo to extort them for more graphic images or videos.

“And they really get into this devastating pit where they are hugely humiliated,” said Cecelia Gregson, a senior deputy King County prosecutor.

Some cases, she said, have ended in the victim committing suicide.

“One of the conversation pieces with children needs to be, 'If someone has convinced you to do something that you wish you hadn’t, you are not going to be in trouble with me if you tell me you need help because this person is going to send this image to all your friends on Facebook, or send this image to all your friends on Instagram,' or whatever the threat is," she said.

Captain Edwards said parents need to be aware of what apps children have on their phones and what they can be used for.

“That particular app that takes that picture and deletes it in 10 seconds, why is it your child needs that? What intrinsic value is there to your child’s emotional or intellectual growth? Start asking those questions,” he said.

Gregson, who has children under the age of 12, takes a harder line at home.

“My children don’t have access to devices that are unlimited,” she said. “They don’t have cellphones. They probably will eventually, but they will not be allowed to have applications. There’s no way to monitor apps. There’s no effective way to monitor apps."

Sergeant Rodriguez, who has teenagers, said his job has changed him as a father.

“It's made me just a better parent and looking out for kids as a whole, seeing what’s out there. You do need to be involved," he said. "You have to have the conversation. Just like, if I were to ask you, 'What do you do before you cross the street? (Reporter: Look both ways?)' Exactly. You have to have the same conversation about this - about what’s online."