“UnMasked”: educational program to combat exploitation launched by federal prosecutors in Virginia.

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — Federal prosecutors in Virginia are launching an educational initiative to alert students and others to the growing dangers of online child sexual exploitation.

Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Raj Parekh announced the program, titled “UnMasked,” on Friday. The program will include presentations at colleges, high schools and universities.

“Online predators target some of the most vulnerable members of our society and can have a devastating impact on our communities and loved ones,” Parekh said in a written statement. “The first step in the response is awareness, which means educating our young people and our parents with information on how to prevent these crimes from happening.

The program will use a program from the Alexandria-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) called NetSmartz, which relies in part on stories from survivors of sexual exploitation.

NCMEC says online sexual exploitation skyrocketed in 2020, fueled by social isolation caused by the pandemic. The center’s “CyberTipline” received more than 21 million reports of child sexual exploitation by electronic service providers in 2020, a 27% increase from the previous year.

The Eastern District of Virginia is headquartered in Alexandria with offices in Richmond, Newport News and Norfolk.

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