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Child sex abuse: Operation Sunflower highlights new efforts to get predators

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The majority of suspects were arrested in the United States, but 23 were arrested abroad. The states with the most arrests were California (37), Texas (29), New York (19), Florida (17), and New Mexico (11). States with destination theme parks and family-friendly attractions tend to be targets of predators because they usher through a high volume of children each year.

Ms. Bennett says that Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the unit within ICE pursuing online predators, is now focusing on “victim-centered investigations,” in which the agency tries to track the identities of the victims first instead of predators. Each time an agent uncovers evidence, it is sent to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a partner since last year, to see if it matches similar images from that database.

HSI also relies on advanced software to examine minute details of photos and videos, and it trains agents to understand the shifting behavior of predators.

“As technology gets better ... the bad guys are getting better in using technology to hide themselves. We have to be one step ahead,” says Bennett.

With each arrest, there can be setbacks. For example, the Los Angeles woman arrested, Letha Mae Montemayor, allegedly conducted activities with another adult who remains on the loose. Ms. Montemayor was linked to the photos through her unique tattoos that were registered into a database and were eventually identified by a tipster. The second adult – identified on his federal arrest warrant as “John Doe” – has evaded capture so far because he inserted a black dot over the images of his face, ICE says.

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