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FBI victim specialists were an integral part of operational teams during Operation Independence Day. Their mission is to provide victims with resources to help them in their situations. (FBI)

It’s time for parents to have hard conversations with their kids about their internet behavior. That was the message from the Pittsburgh FBI Field Office Wednesday morning, when officials announced the results of a July initiative called Operation Independence Day. The operation netted 60 suspected child traffickers nationwide. 

“It’s important that parents have open and constructive dialogues with their children about what they’re doing with their phones,” said Supervisory Special Agent Tim Wolford, “and the dangers that are out there.”

During the operation, the FBI identified or recovered 103 juveniles in collaboration with 400 law enforcement agencies around the country. Wolford said undercover officers posed as potential clients for minors who had advertised sex online, then met with juveniles and built rapport. From there, the agents began to establish cases against “perpetrators who prey on children.”

“These are some of the toughest cases that we work. And these agents working these cases see the darkest side of humanity,” Wolford said. “But they do it to give these kids a brighter future and the opportunity to grow up to be healthy adults.”

In many cases, perpetrators create fake social-media profiles and try to get kids to meet them in person, or to send explicit photographs the perpetrators can later use for blackmail.

“[The minors are] told that if they don’t send more pictures or more egregious pictures that they’ll expose them to their parents or their friends, which kind of traps them in this relationship with these people,” Wolford said. 

Two arrests were made in Western Pennsylvania, including one in Monroeville. So far this year, four people have been charged with traveling to Pittsburgh to have sex with a minor. 

Woford said warned that child sexual exploitation can happen anywhere.

“Even if you don’t think these kind of crimes are happening in your neighborhood, I’m here to tell you that they are.”

WESA’s Hannah Gaskill contributed to this report.