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SAN DIEGO – Online sex crimes against children are surging in San Diego, local authorities say.

“We have seen a great uptick in predators offering goods for imagery, things such as gift cards, cash, food, clothing,” said San Diego police Sgt. Garrick Nugent who oversees San Diego Internet Crimes Against Children. “We’ve seen a big uptick in that, and unfortunately younger children are falling prey to that.”

He said his team has investigated cases including children as young as 9.

Compiled data from online tips, sheriff reports and police reports show online crimes, ranging from anything from cyberbullying to sexting, nearly doubled in 2020 in San Diego County.

About 6,100 such reports were logged in 2020, compared to roughly 3,300 in 2019.

Of the total cases, girls are targeted in about 60% of cases while boys make up the other 40%, Nugent said. He attributes the surge in cases to the pandemic, as parents tend to be busier at home while kids have more online access while doing distance learning.

But he said it’s also because children are lonely.

“Kids are just starving for social interaction; they’re looking for people to interact with since they don’t have those connections any longer at school or with their friends because of the pandemic,” Nugent said.

The FBI also reports a rise in “sexstortion” cases nationwide, essentially when an adult convinces a child to send sexual pictures or perform sexual acts online and then demanding more.

But in all online cases involving children, Nugent warns parents to look out for these warning signs:

“Hiding what’s on their computer or phone screens when their parents are around,” he said. “They talk of new friends but really no details of who they are; maybe attempting to look older with makeup or clothing; or unexpected gifts and money coming to the house.”

He recommends setting your child’s privacy settings to the strictest level, monitor their internet usage and simply talk about boundaries.