In today’s connected world, internet safety is a growing concern for all age groups. From credit card fraud and identity theft to cyber stalking and child predators, there are countless dangers individuals can encounter online. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), over the last five years, there has been an average of more than 284,000 internet crime complaints filed per year. The complaints address a wide range of online scams and crimes affecting victims across the world.
As a mother of a 13-year old and a 10-year old, I face the reality that most American children now have internet access. Of course, internet technology affords children access to endless amounts of valuable information and great sources of entertainment. However, it also exposes children to terrible dangers, including demeaning or hateful speech, false information, SPAM containing obscene material and inappropriate websites. Most troublesome, children may also encounter predators who use the internet as a tool to identify, groom, and lure victims through social media sites.
Another worrisome reality is that in 2018, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported seeing a striking increase in the average dollar amount that people aged 70 years and older say they lost to fraud. Most commonly, elders receive emails or some other form of online contact from individuals who pretend to be their grandchildren and request large amounts of cash. The average amount of cash sent by elders to family or friend impostors in these situations is $9,000. Over the last several years, financial losses to family and friend imposters have significantly increased. Last year, losses reached $41 million, compared to $26 million in 2017.
These statistics are troubling, to say the least. It goes without saying that as adults, we bear a lot of personal responsibility when it comes to safeguarding our personal information and our children and loved ones on the internet. It is important that we educate ourselves, our children, our parents and our grandparents about the risks that exist online, but I believe the federal government also has a crucial role to play in managing these dangers.
During a recent Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, Attorney General William Barr testified regarding the Department of Justice’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget request, and I had the opportunity to ask him specifically what the Department is doing to safeguard Americans from online predators. I appreciated his time and thoughtful response. It is imperative that Congress allocate adequate resources to combat internet crimes and abuses, and I was glad to learn more about what steps the Justice Department is taking.
If you encounter a website that seems suspicious for children, you should immediately report that information to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s website at www.cybertipline.com, or by calling 1-800-843-5678. If you are a parent and come across offensive material or hear about online predators, you should quickly document the related online activities and report them directly to your local police department or the local FBI office.
Specific to our elders, in 2018, the Department of Justice established the Elder Justice Initiative to protect elderly Americans from financial threats. The Department provides elder-specific targeted training to local law enforcement, prosecutors, first responders, and others to enhance our abilities to respond to elder abuse effectively and bring criminals to justice. If you suspect an elder is being abused by a scammer or in other non-life-threatening manners, you should report the information to the Adult Protective Services Association by calling 1-800-458-7214.
At the end of the day, you are still the strongest, most reliable protection for your loved ones from the dangers of the internet. It is our job to educate our children, parents, and other elderly relatives about the threats that exist online, but if it ever becomes necessary, I encourage you to utilize the resources listed above to combat online predators and protect those who fall prey to them. I am hopeful that Congress will put into place a strong Fiscal Year 2020 budget for the Department of Justice so that we can further crack down on these atrocious internet crimes.
Martha Roby represents Alabama’s Second Congressional District. She lives in Montgomery with her husband Riley and their two children.