LONDON — Child abuse investigators in Britain, the United States and Australia have dismantled an organized crime group that live-streamed child sexual abuse to order from the Philippines.
Britain’s National Crime Agency said Thursday that an international investigation broke up the ring, resulting in 29 arrests people in 12 countries who had paid to watch the abuse.
Police describe the use of webcams to stream live child abuse — especially from developing countries — as a “significant and emerging threat.”
“This investigation has identified some extremely dangerous child sexual offenders who believed paying for children to be abused to order was something they could get away with,” said Andy Baker, the deputy director of the agency’s command for child protection. “Being thousands of miles away makes no difference to their guilt. In my mind they are just as responsible for the abuse of these children as the contact abusers overseas.”
The investigation began after a routine visit to Timothy Ford, a registered sex offender in Britain. Police found a number of indecent videos on his computer and contacted child abuse investigators, touching off a global investigation beginning in 2012.
UK authorities worked with the Australian Federal Police and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers as well as the International Justice Mission, a non-governmental group. Together the agencies presented their data to authorities in the Philippines to identify offenders and victims.
The investigation — codenamed Operation Endeavour — identified 733 suspects and has resulted in some convictions, including Ford, who was sentenced in March to 8 ½ years in prison. The agency said Ford paid to watch the live abuse and had planned to move to the Philippines to set up an internet cafe.
Ford and another man, Thomas Owen, had discussed traveling to the Philippines together. Ford, who uses a wheelchair, “suggested that Owen could act as his carer so they could travel to the Philippines together in an attempt to avoid detection,” police said.
Owen, who was found with nearly 4 million indecent images of children, was sentenced in July to seven years in prison.
Authorities in the Philippines issued three search warrants in 2012, and 15 children aged between 6 and 15 were rescued and placed in the custody of social welfare services.
Stephanie McCourt, of the UK’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center, which is now part of the NCA, told the BBC that pedophiles should know that the Internet is not a “safe place for them.”
“They must also not be under the mistaken impression that this is a crime which carries no guilt because it happens on the other side of the world,” she said. “It is just as bad, just as harmful as though it was happening to the children right here in the U.K.”
The arrests underscored the well-established problem of cybercrime rings victimizing children in impoverished communities.
Community support to eradicate the problem is crucial because the crime often is concealed in the privacy of homes away from the attention of authorities, said Mayor Michael Rama of Cebu city in the central Philippines, a region where some of the abuses have been reported.
“When you have some poverty, the availability of information and technology and the attraction for easy money, these abuses happen,” Rama told The Associated Press by telephone. “City hall can fight this but if the villages don’t get involved, what’s going to happen?”
Philippine police Senior Superintendent Gilbert Sosa, who heads an anti-cybercrime unit, said incidents of abuse have been monitored in Cebu, Manila and Angeles city north of the capital.
Impoverished parents allow their children to be sexually abused and watched by paying foreigners via the internet in exchange for $100 to $200, Sosa said.
“We’re continuing with our operations,” Sosa said. “We’ve not eradicated this.”