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UK detains 45 suspects in just 4 weeks as child abusers exploit COVID-19 realities

How criminals are adapting to COVID-19 realities
How criminals are adapting to COVID-19 realit... 03:34

London — The director-general of the U.K.'s National Crime Agency (NCA) says the criminals who prey on children online, and gangs behind serious and organized crime, are finding opportunities and adapting to the circumstances presented by the coronavirus pandemic.

Lynne Owens, whose agency is akin to the FBI in the United States, tells CBS News' Ian Lee that British authorities are working closely with their American counterparts on cybercrime in particular. Children, stuck at home under COVID-19 lockdowns in the U.K. and many parts of the U.S., are particularly vulnerable as they spend additional time on the internet.

"We don't want to scare parents, but there is no doubt that with more children online, we need to work harder to protect those children," Owens told CBS News.

On Tuesday, London's Metropolitan Police force said its Online Child Abuse and Exploitation Unit had protected almost 100 children and arrested 45 suspected offenders over the past four weeks of virus lockdown alone.

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An officer with the London Metropolitan Police's Online Child Abuse and Exploitation Unit (OCSAE) searches a suspect's property in an undated image provided by the police force.  London Metropolitan Police OCSAE

"An average of ten new live investigations have been launched every week as a result of the 45 arrests over the same period," the police said, adding that if the three weeks before the official national lockdown was declared on 23 March are also taken into account, the number of arrests rises to 72, with 132 children protected. 

Owens stressed to CBS News the international nature of this kind of online crime against children, and the need for an equally international response to it.

"One of the very scary things about this crime is that it knows no borders," she told Lee, noting that a sexual predator can sit in the safety of their home and target a child "anywhere in the world."

Through its investigations into predators in the U.K., she said the NCA had "uncovered four cases where the offenders have been based in the United States, and we fast-time share that intelligence with our colleagues and they immediately take action, and we would do the same."

Owens said criminals who work in the physical world had also stepped up efforts to keep their operations running while lockdown orders keep virtually everyone off the streets, making it harder to sell drugs, guns and other contraband the way they always have.

She said, for instance that drug dealers have tried to "adapt their on-street activity," including by simply putting on fluorescent jackets to "make themselves look like key workers or trying to look like they are complying with social distancing, but attending supermarket carparks and carrying out their dealing there."

Owens confirmed that a large seizure of cocaine was made after the narcotics entered the U.K. inside a shipment of personal protective equipment for health workers.

"There's no doubt that criminals have tried to adapt their method of operating in the current crisis," she said.

Tucker Reals contributed to this report.

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