WEST VALLEY CITY — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement launched a new smartphone app Thursday designed to help rescue children from sexual abuse and exploitation and locate the predators.

It’s called the Operation Predator app, and it’s the first of its kind in U.S. federal law enforcement.

“This problem (child exploitation) has become so pervasive, (it’s) one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises in the world and the government is asking for the public’s help,” said special agent Tim Ballard with ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations.

A lot of the crimes against children happen, or at least originate online, Ballard said. The Internet and technology has given child predators the ability to network.

“We use that same technology that they’re using to combat it,” he said.

If a user sees a potential crime being committed against a child, they can contact Homeland Security Investigations by calling or submitting an online tip through the app.

“When they see a child is being hurt in any way, whether it’s online exploitation or they see a child who looks like they are being trafficked or forced into prostitution or something that’s not right,” users can push a button and be connected directly with an investigator, Ballard said. All tips can be reported anonymously through the app, by phone or online, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In the past, Ballard said it could take weeks for tips to get to the right person because people didn’t know what to do or who to call. When it comes to child exploitation, minutes matter.

“It allows them to have direct access to law enforcement, to special agents on the other end of that tip line who can respond when the public sees a potential crime being committed against a child,” he said.

The app also allows users to see a list all the child predators that are at large, including those where they only have a photo, but no name. The user just taps on the photo and more information pops up.

Users will also receive periodic alerts about wanted predators and receive news about the latest arrests.

They hope that if someone sees something unusual involving a child, they won't hesitate in using this simple app.

“The government is asking the public for help, to be the eyes and ears when they see something that's wrong, when they see a child that's being hurt,” Ballard said.

For now, the free "Operation Predator" app is only available through Apple’s App Store or from iTunes. ICE is planning to expand the service to other smartphones in the near future.

Email: kmccord@deseretnews.com