A group campaigning against child sex exploitation has run an online sting operation which caught thousands of paedophiles trying to solicit a computer-generated 10-year-old girl.
More than 20,000 separate users were ensnared over the course of 10 weeks, all trying to watch the virtual Filipino child Sweetie perform indecent acts via a webcam.
Researchers from the Netherlands-based activists group Terre des Hommes logged in to public chat rooms under the alias of Sweetie, an apparently real girl who they identified clearly by country of origin, gender and age.
The results were shocking, according to the group’s project director Has Guyt. They found that the forums were flooded with people willing to pay to see a young child perform sex acts live online.
Using basic online search techniques, Mr Guyt’s team at a small, remote office outside Amsterdam was able to compile a dossier of 1,000 named internet users, complete with written and video evidence, engaged in the illegal activity.
The top country of origin for the adults identified was the United States with 254, followed by Britain with 110 and India with 103.
Terres des Hommes have passed their findings on to Interpol, but the online abusers will only be prosecuted if police can find evidence in their own investigations. The group said only six perpetrators of what they call “webcam child sex tourism” have ever been convicted of the crime worldwide.
“If we don't intervene soon, this sinister phenomenon will totally run out of control,” Mr Guyt said, describing it as a “cottage” industry that needs to be stamped out now.
“It's still not too late,” Guyt said. “Our worst scenario is that the same thing will happen with this as has happened with child pornography — that is now a multibillion dollar industry in the hands of criminal gangs.”
The group has begun an online petition calling for action against webcam child sex tourism, and posted a documentary about its 10-week investigation on its YouTube channel.
“We do not need more laws,” Mr Guyt said. “Present legislation is suitable and more than enough to cover these acts.”
“We want governments to adopt proactive investigation policies that give law enforcement agencies the mandate to actively patrol public Internet hotspots where this child abuse is taking place every day. The child predators doing this now feel that the law doesn’t apply to them. The Internet is free, but not lawless.”
A chat with Sweetie
During a demonstration for the Associated Press yesterday, a Terres des Hommes researcher logged into a public chat room as Sweetie — identifying himself by her purported age, gender and country of origin. Seconds later, multiple pop-up dialogue boxes began appearing on his screen from people using pseudonyms and soliciting a girl who had clearly identified herself as 10 years old.
One chat between the researcher identifying himself as Sweetie and one of the online users went like this:
Sweetie: “What you want see?”
Sweetie: “What u pay for?”
As the conversation progressed, they agreed a $20 fee to be paid by a wire transfer and Sweetie asked for the person's Skype address, but took the chat no further.
“We were swamped by men looking for contact, looking for sexual activities with us,” Mr Guyt said.