By Ron Scherer | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
NEW YORK - Despite highly publicized arrests, law-enforcement
officials say that the sexual exploitation of children on the Internet
is growing dramatically. The more that get arrested, the more there
are out there ...
Over the past four years, the number of reports of child pornography
sites to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC)
has grown by almost 400 percent. Law-enforcement officials are
particularly disturbed by the increased number of commercial sites
that offer photos of exploited children in return for a credit-card
number. Those fighting child porn say it has become a global
"We are encountering staggering proportions of violators or offenders
we would have never imagined years ago," says Ray Smith, who oversees
child exploitation investigations by the United States Postal
Inspection Service. "It is an exploding problem worldwide, and
particularly in the US," adds Ernie Allen, president of NCMEC.
Efforts to stem the upsurge are taking place on multiple fronts.
At the G-8 summit in Scotland last month, officials said that Interpol,
an international police organization, is putting together a global
database of offenders and victims. And this week, 3,000 law-enforcement
officials from around the US are meeting in Dallas to discuss ways to
attack Internet crimes against children.
On the state level, New Jersey and Florida are among those enacting
requirements for sexual predators to wear GPS devices that keep track
of their whereabouts.
One of the biggest pushes against the purveyors is aimed at shutting
down the use of credit cards. NCMEC is currently talking to MasterCard
about making it even harder to subscribe to the commercial sites.
"We're trying to mobilize the financial industry to choke off the
money," says Mr. Allen.
At MasterCard, spokeswoman Sharon Gamsin says her organization is
"appalled people are using our systems for illegal transactions
involving child pornography, and finding a way to stop this is a
Two years ago, Visa International began a program to try to identify
child porn sites allowing transactions with its credit cards. It
hired a firm that used retired federal agents to go through the
Internet searching for sites, and it says it's still searching the Web
for illicit sites today.
Good marks for effort
Officials generally give the credit-card companies good marks for
their efforts. "The financial industry is made up of real people with
children, and they want this thing ended for society, too," says Mr.
Smith, who has been fighting the illegal merchandise since 1982.
To try to help credit-card companies and law-enforcement officials
identify websites, NCMEC has hired a consultant to search online for
illicit sites. "We provide the information first to law enforcement
and then do reviews to see if they follow up," he says. "Otherwise, we
send a cease-and-desist order to the method-of-payment services [such
as a credit-card company] and try to engage banks and regulators."
Allen notes that he recently met with Asian bankers to seek
Shutting off the money flow could help, agree officials. Jim Plitt,
director of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Cyber
Crime Center, believes that the growth of the child porn industry is
part of what he terms the "illegal business cycle" -- where groups
watching the huge profits decide to join in.
"The emphasis is on the money. That's where you focus," says Mr.
Plitt, who adds, "more cases are coming."
When law-enforcement officials have cracked the organizations, they
often find that the organizations have many illegal websites that are
collecting money. That was the case with Regpay, a company in Minsk,
Belarus, which provided credit-card billing services for 50 child porn
Indeed, the groups are often international in scope. The Regpay
investigation resulted in the initial arrests of 35 people in the
United States, France, and Spain. "The actual businesses themselves
are not necessarily large, but they have a large membership pool,"
When Regpay was broken up two years ago, it had 270,000 subscribers --
4,000 in New Jersey alone. Recently, in fact, 11 more individual
subscribers were arrested in New Jersey, and more arrests are on the
way, say officials.
Because the membership pool was so large, law-enforcement officials
have broken the prosecutions down into two phases. The first phase was
to dismantle the financial apparatus, including businesses in Florida
and California that processed US credit-card transactions. The second
phase, which is ongoing, is to arrest individuals who subscribed to
"They are prioritized, so we are targeting individuals with access to
children, people of trust in the community, and the most egregious
subscribers who had lots of transactions," says Jamie Zuieback, a
spokeswoman for ICE. "What you'll see in the cases made are
schoolteachers, pediatricians, a campus minister, a Boy Scout leader,
and other individuals in those types of positions."
ICE is now arresting individuals who subscribed to the sites
Although the arrests themselves get the word out to the pedophile
community, some law-enforcement officials are optimistic that technology
may ultimately help them stem the tide. "I think there will come a time
in the not-too-distant future where, working with the [Internet service
provider] community and the financial community, they will be able to
package information and put it into computers that will not allow people
to subscribe to these sites," says Smith.
However, he adds, "We have First Amendment issues so we can't completely
shut down all pornographic sites."
Steps to keep kids safe
. As always, make communication a priority. "One of the main
tips is listening to your kids. Pay attention if they tell you they
don't want to go somewhere or see someone," Ms. Schwartz says.
. Let kids know that they can say no. "They have the right to
say no to any uncomfortable advances or touches. Kids are taught to be
respectful of their elders, and child predators prey on that."
. As far as computers go, be aware of technology, trends, and
especially a child's online activity. "Parents [are perceived as not
being] up to speed with the technology. It's a great conversation
starter to say, 'OK, what websites are you looking at? How do I create
an [instant messaging] account?' " That can be a subtle way to monitor
. Caution children in giving out information. "Predators ask for
phone numbers or personal information, and eventually they want to
escalate it to a phone call. People don't realize how little
information is needed today in order to find someone."
. Be attuned to any changes in behavior. "What if she was just
acting different and spending hours and hours online -- if you come up
to her and she quickly minimized the screen?"
. Suspicious websites or other activities can be reported to
www.cybertipline.com or 800-843-5678.
- Adam Karlin
Copyright 2005 The Christian Science Monitor.
NOTE: For more telecom/internet/networking/computer news from the
daily media, check out our feature 'Telecom Digest Extra' each day at
http://telecom-digest.org/td-extra/more-news.html . Hundreds of new
articles daily. To read the Christian Science Monitor on line each day
with no registration nor login requirements please go to:
http://telecom-digest.org/td-extra/nytimes.html and review the far
right hand column (upper part of page).
Also see articles 'Not so Fast; xxx Startup Put on Hold' elsewhere in
this issue of the Digest.