With people staying at home more often these days, the internet is as accessible as ever — and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is warning that this may not be a good thing.
TBI Director David Rausch shared during Gov. Bill Lee’s briefing on Thursday that, since the start of the pandemic, TBI has seen a dramatic increase in cyber tips, following a nationwide trend.
“During the pandemic, children have had more time online and potentially less parental supervision, and at the start of the quarantine, we saw a large and concerning spike in the number of cyber tips that we received,” Rausch said.
He said the nation has seen about a roughly 93% increase in cyber tips, and with more than 450 tips in Tennessee this year, including 122 in March alone, Tennessee is no exception.
“We want children to feel safe in their classroom, even if their classroom is the kitchen table, but not only are children working more in a virtual environment, so are the sexual predators,” Rausch said. “At the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, we understand the benefits that technology provides, and we also understand the potential dangers that can go along with it.”
Rausch said the TBI employs investigators specifically for internet crimes against children and cybercrimes more generally. However, he also shared some tips for families engaging in a little more screen time.
In addition to teaching “stranger danger” when it comes to the internet, Rausch recommended only allowing internet use in public spaces of the house, not bathrooms or bedrooms, and discouraging the use of chat rooms.
“We have had agents pose as teenage girls in chat rooms and, within moments of their logging on, they have had adult men contact them and send inappropriate photos of themselves and ask for the girl to send them inappropriate photos,” he said, recommending parents warn their children against people asking for photos.
Rausch added that “it’s OK to read your child’s chat history,” but keep communication open with your kids to build their trust. If there is anything suspicious in a chat feed, Rausch recommended not deleting it but taking a screenshot and contacting law enforcement immediately. He also recommended using parental control apps to limit inappropriate content.
According to Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, of the 90% (131) of Tennessee public school districts that have begun classes, 88% (129) have online options while 12% (18) are fully remote.
Lee said he has directed the education department to “develop a plan for more stringent cybersecurity strategy for districts utilizing online learning.”
The data does not specifically indicate that the start of virtual school has caused an uptick in cybercrime reports, according to Rausch, but he does see a correlation with the pandemic in general.
Schwinn said for schools engaging in remote programs where students log into its servers remotely, those servers must be secure to prevent any breaches. Many districts have deployed virtual private networks (VPNs) for added protection.
Even in recommending security measures to schools, Schwinn, Lee and Rausch all advised parents to stay alert while their children are online.
“It can only take a few steps to get from virtual school to escort ads,” Rausch said. “Just as we are all adjusting to this new virtual reality, so too are the predators.”
He said the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has free educational resources for adults and children, broken into age-appropriate categories, to teach about internet safety and other safety lessons. For access to those resources, visit NetSmartz.org and KidSmartz.org.
To report suspicious internet activity, email TipsToTBI@tn.gov or call the human trafficking hotline at 1-855-558-6484.