More than 50 Canadians are among 1,000 alleged predators whom a Dutch organization has identified after it created an elaborate computer-animated prepubescent girl and used the image to conduct a sting operation to unmask webcam child-sex tourists.
The Dutch chapter of the group Terre des Hommes gave the identities of the 1,000 alleged predators to Interpol on Monday.
For two and half months this spring, TDH researchers ran the undercover operation out of a warehouse in an industrial part of Amsterdam, posing as a 10-year-old Philippine girl on Internet chat rooms.
They said they were quicky approached by more than 20,000 online predators from 71 countries. "The moment we got online, we were swamped, like an avalanche," TDH special projects director Hans Guyt told a news conference webcast from the Hague.
TDH is an organization fighting child exploitation in developing countries. Its representatives said they decided on the undercover operation after seeing an alarming rise in child-abuse cases.
"Webcam child-sex tourism is spreading like an epidemic," said Albert Jaap van Santbrink, director of TDH Netherlands.
"These people think they are invisible. These people think they are untouchable," Mr. Guyt added.
They said the researchers involved in the undercover operation made sure that they would not entrap their online interlocutors by explicitly claiming to be 10 years old and not inititating sexual requests.
The chats took place around the clock so that they could cover several time zones. The researchers were able to identify about 1,000 adults in 65 countries by cross-referencing their e-mail or Skype addresses with other public information.
Mr. Guyt said they did not hack any computers and did not rely on any suspect's financial data to pinpoint them. "This was all information that was volunteered to us."
The men who were identified included 254 in the United States, 110 in Britain, 54 in Canada, 46 in Australia and 44 in Germany.
TDH said it had found news reports for only six convictions of predators engaging in webcam sex tourism in Canada, the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden and Australia.
The Canadian case occurred in British Columbia and was reported to be Canada's first case of cybersex tourism.
The B.C. Supreme Court heard this summer that a North Saanich resident, Jean-Pierre François Lévesque, had been in communications with a man in China named Fu, who was the father of a young boy named Shen.
"Mr. Lévesque engaged in a series of video chats with Fu, and in several of them he counselled Fu to commit sexual assaults on Shen while Mr. Lévesque watched," Justice Keith Bracken said in sentencing him to five years for possessing child pornography for the purpose of trafficking and counselling to commit a sexual assault on a person under the age of 16. He had pleaded guilty.
Mr. Guyt said law-enforcement agencies have not been aggressive enough in unmasking child abusers and should not wait for a complaint to act. "The predator won't come forward, the prey won't come forward," he said.
However, court evidence shows that police in Canada and the United States have repeatedly conducted undercover operations where they lure suspects by pretending to be minors.
"We've been doing similar things here in Toronto. We do pro-active work where we pose as young children online in order to find those guys. We've been doing that, in fact, for over 10 years," Detective Paul Krawczyk of the Toronto Police Services' sex-crimes unit said in an interview.
However, law-enforcement successes are limited by a lack of resources.
Mr. Lévesque was caught during covert online surveillance by Detective Sergeant Darren Parisien, a Saskatoon police expert in child cyber-exploitation.
"Detective Sergeant Parisien described the efforts that are constantly performed by the police to monitor and track such sites, but cautioned that they can only deal with a small portion of the ones of which they are aware, and what they are aware of is likely only a small percentage of what exists," the sentencing decision said.
The tips that TDH handed to Interpol on Monday would normally be transmitted to the National Child Exploitation Co-ordination Centre, which the RCMP operates out of Ottawa. The centre then studies the information and contacts local police forces or RCMP detachments to initiate investigations. Unless there is evidence that a child is under immediate threat, however, it can take months before the information is validated and a search warrant executed.