Despite highly publicized arrests, law-enforcement officials say that the sexual exploitation of children on the Internet is growing dramatically.
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 multibillion-dollar industry.
"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 priority."
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.
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 cooperation.
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 websites worldwide.
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," says Plitt.
When Regpay was broken up two years ago, it had 70,000 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. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the number of subscribers.]
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 the sites.
"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 multiple times.
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."