Amsterdam • A Dutch children’s rights organization warned Monday of an epidemic of minors being paid to perform sexual acts via webcams and urged police around the world to crack down on the practice.
Terre des Hommes, a Dutch-based organization that works to stop child exploitation around the world, said that to gauge the scale of the problem it created a computer-generated 10-year-old Philippines girl called Sweetie. She was bombarded with offers in an online chat room to pay for webcam sex shows, it said.
"If we don’t intervene soon, this sinister phenomenon will totally run out of control," Terre des Hommes director of projects Hans Guyt told The Associated Press.
The organization said it identified 1,000 online predators during a 10-week investigation and will hand details to Interpol.
Terre des Hommes has for years worked to combat child prostitution in Southeast Asia and staff members noticed in recent years that young prostitutes were disappearing from their usual haunts: cafes, restaurants and hotels frequented by sex tourists. They discovered that sex tourists are now able to exploit children from their own homes because of the proliferation of high-speed Internet connections, Guyt said.
He said child prostitutes, and in some cases children forced by their own impoverished parents, offer to perform sex acts online in return for money. Once payment has been received, often via an online money transfer service, they will perform in front of a webcam with the images sent via a private chat room.
The problem of online child exploitation is not new. A United Nations investigator said in 2009 that more than 750,000 people are using child pornography sites at any one time.
But the exploitation is being facilitated as the world increasingly become interconnected.
Executive Director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Yury Fedotov, told a meeting in September in Vienna that, "the digital age has exacerbated the problem and created more vulnerability to children."
To test that theory, Terre des Hommes says it equipped a room in an anonymous warehouse in an industrial neighborhood of Amsterdam with computers and created Sweetie, a strikingly realistic computer-generated 3D animation intended to look like a 10-year-old Philippines girl. Using Sweetie as an online disguise, Terre des Hommes researchers chatted to potential clients online.
The effect of their 10-week investigation was shocking, said Guyt.
"We were swamped by men looking for contact, looking for sexual activities with us," he said.
After one of the researchers logged into a public chatroom as Sweetie — identifying himself by her purported age, gender and country of origin — during a demonstration Monday morning, multiple pop-up dialogue boxes appeared on his screen from people using pseudonyms and soliciting Sweetie.
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.
Guyt said Terre des Hommes, using basic research techniques and not hacking, was able to identify 1,000 men who solicited Sweetie and will hand the details to Interpol.
The organization also is starting a petition to draw the issue to the attention of lawmakers around the world in an attempt to prompt action.
"We have to make sure the world community understands the scale and nature of this phenomenon," Guyt said.
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