Ashley Reynolds was 14 when a stranger sent her an email with a sinister message in the subject line: “I have naked pics of you, open this.” She ignored it, thinking it was spam, but he kept emailing, then texting her, demanding she send him sexually explicit images or he would share the naked pictures with her friends. Very quickly, Ashley became ensnared in sextortion, caving in to his daily demands for more photos to save her reputation. She was being held hostage in her own home.
“I was virtually kidnapped,” said Ashley, who felt “terrorized” and too afraid to tell anyone. “I was abducted by a stranger. My parents saw me every single day, but they had no idea.”
After watching their child’s happy demeanor deteriorate over several months, Ashley’s parents signed onto her computer to see what was going on, confronted her with their shocking discovery and reported the sextortion to authorities. But where did her mother report it?
She called The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and made a report to our CyberTipline.
If your child is missing, you know who to call for help: your local law-enforcement agency. But what if your child is being sexually exploited online? The internet has no jurisdictional boundaries like a police department or a sheriff’s office. The person harming your child could be in another state – or another country.
That’s why we established the CyberTipline, www.cybertipline.org, so the public and Electronic Service Providers would have a place to make reports of suspected online sexual exploitation – and get help for child victims. Since 1998, when the internet was gathering steam, we’ve received more than 116 million reports – a staggering number that has been growing exponentially in recent years. Last year alone, we received more than 29 million reports, an average of 80,000 per day.
“In addition to receiving reports from Electronic Service Providers, the CyberTipline is an essential resource for parents, teens and other members of the public to report instances of child sexual exploitation,” said Lindsey Olson, executive director of our Exploited Children Division.
After Ashley’s mother, in Arizona, made the report, our analysts determined the suspected child predator lived in Florida and sent the report and additional information to an Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) in that state, one of 61 task forces in the U.S. comprised of local, state and federal investigators. The FBI not only located and successfully prosecuted the child predator with Ashley’s help but uncovered computer records showing he had terrorized nearly 350 other girls in the United States, Canada and the U.K. The search was on to find those children.
Our CyberTipline receives reports of online enticement like Ashley’s case and other types of child sexual exploitation, including sex trafficking and molestation. However, the vast majority – 99% – are reports of suspected child sexual abuse material (CSAM), more commonly known as child pornography.
Child pornography is not a term we use at NCMEC. It does not convey the violent and graphic abuse occurring in these photos and, increasingly, videos. These are not images of babies in a bathtub. These are crime-scene photos. Sometimes this unimaginable abuse is live streamed. At NCMEC, we call what’s happening to these children in these images and videos what it is: Child sexual abuse. Or, in some cases, rape.
The internet has become an integral and invaluable part of society, but it’s also become a secure environment for people with like-minded interests to produce and share images with one another. It has shined a spotlight on the seemingly insatiable demand around the world for sexually abusive images and videos of children – girls and boys – and some as young as infants.
Our analysts review these reports and triage those that need immediate attention. They try to determine where these crimes are happening, pulling together information from open-source searches and public databases and making the report and their analysis available to the appropriate ICAC. They also send them on secure networks to law-enforcement agencies in more than 140 countries, including Europol and Interpol. Child sexual exploitation on the internet knows no boundaries. It’s a global problem.
Through our Child Victim Identification Program (CVIP), our analysts also review collections of CSAM that law enforcement seize during investigations to determine which images and videos depict child victims already identified and rescued by law enforcement. That way, they can help law enforcement identify unknown children in newly produced content who may be at risk of further abuse and need to be rescued.
Our dedicated staff has analyzed hundreds of millions of these often horrific, homemade images and videos, looking for clues that might help law enforcement determine, literally, where in the world is this child – and where are these images being produced?
So far, CVIP is aware of law enforcement rescuing more than 21,413 children from these sexually abusive situations.
Operating the CyberTipline, the centralized mechanism in the U.S. for reporting these crimes, has given us a massive amount of data and a unique lens on child sexual exploitation that helps us shape our prevention programs. Most children in these images have been abused by someone they know and often in their own homes.
CSAM victims are often traumatized from the sexual abuse inflicted on them, but that harm is compounded when the abuse is memorialized with photos and videos shared on the internet for the viewing pleasure of others. Every time an image is viewed, traded or downloaded, that child is re-victimized, often well into adulthood.
“Every day of my life I live in constant fear that someone will see my pictures and recognize me and that I will be humiliated all over again,” said one CSAM victim. “It hurts to know someone is looking at them – at me – when I was just a little girl being abused for the camera…I want it all erased. I want it all stopped. But I am powerless to stop it.”
At NCMEC, we’ve been using technology, such as Videntifier software, to help us more quickly identify new victims, and remove CSAM from the internet. We notify companies when CSAM is found on their platforms so they can review the URLs and take it down.
We’re working with CSAM survivors to better understand the unique kind of trauma they experience, with some too afraid to show their faces in public for fear of being recognized, and to help educate and train professionals who can help them. Ashley is one of those survivors.
Because of her bravery, Lucas Michael Chansler, at age 31, was sent to prison for more than 100 years and many children, one as young as eight years old, have been rescued. Ashley, who was active in student government and her Young Life group, was humiliated when her parents discovered all the photos she had taken and shared, but she was relieved her ordeal was finally over.
She has made it her life’s mission to share her story publicly to help other children with what has become a rapidly growing crime on the internet.
“If it hits close to home, maybe they will understand,” said Ashley. “High school girls never think it will happen to them. I never thought his would happen to me, but it did.”
(If you’re a victim of child sexual exploitation on the internet or are aware of CSAM, sex trafficking or other crimes against children online, please make a report at www.CyberTipline.org or call NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678).