When it comes to predators targeting children, the Internet is the new playground.
The changing landscape of cyber crime is the focus of South Carolina's first "Stay Safe Online" Week beginning April 21, presented by the Attorney General's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
In recent years, the number of online crimes against children reported to the task force -- including solicitation of minors or sharing child pornography -- has rapidly increased, according to executive director Deb Shupe.
From fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2012, Internet-related tips passed on from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children grew by 152 percent. Over the same period, the number of investigations launched by the task force more than doubled.
To fight the trend, Shupe said part of the mission of online safety week is to enlist parents and guardians in monitoring, reporting and preventing similar crimes.
"When you put a smartphone or an iPad, a laptop or a computer device in the hands of a child, you open up a world they don't control," Shupe said. "You've got to be vigilant, you've got to talk to them, you've got to know where they're going online, what they're putting on their Facebook pages.
"You have to be very involved."
One of the messages the task force hopes to spread through its campaigns this week -- which include social media, news releases and television broadcasts -- is that online pedophiles do not fit a profile, spokesman Mark Powell said.
It's no longer an old man in a trench coat lurking by the schoolyard. Instead, the criminals the task force investigates for soliciting minors or sharing child pornography are of all ages and backgrounds. Last week, a 27-year-old Okatie man was indicted on federal charges after an FBI investigation into possession and distribution of child porn.
Predators can also pretend to be whoever they want to be online.
"They're not going to appear as a creepy old man or a creepy old woman," said Attorney Alan Wilson. "They present themselves as a young, fun person -- something that's attractive to a 13- or 14-year-old child."
Shupe said one thing they do have in common is a singular purpose: finding a young victim.
"They groom them over the Internet and eventually, I believe, many end up in contact offenses against a child," she said. "Even if they don't, some of the stuff they talk to these kids about is taking away their innocence. They're victims even if they don't reach out and touch them."
The task force has been evolving to meet the increasingly rapid pace of technology. When it began in 1998, it was among the first in the country established through a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice and primarily focused on public education, Shupe said. Now, it has grown into a partnership of 34 state law enforcement agencies, including the Bluffton Police Department, where Bluffton police Sgt. Kelly Heany is the task force's liaison.
Launching investigations and making arrests became the driving force when S.C. lawmakers criminalized solicitation and other forms of online child abuse in 2004, Shupe said. The task force forwards tips to jurisdictions where it has partners, but also has investigators with authority throughout the state. All arrests made for Internet crimes against children are prosecuted by the Attorney General's Office, which has three prosecutors dedicated exclusively to the job.
Since 2004, 373 people have been arrested by the task force. Of those, 244 have been convicted.
However, spreading awareness has remained important. Heany said part of her job includes providing guidance to children, parents, educators and others about staying safe online.
This week, the educational aspect will take center stage. Most events will be held in the Midlands, culminating with a panel discussion Friday at Meadow Glen Middle School in Lexington -- a location chosen because it is a "digital citizenship" school where the majority of classes are taught through iPads instead of textbooks.
Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/IPBG_Allison.