Child Porn Rising on Web ; Internet Exploitation of Children Is Prompting Action in US and Abroad

Article excerpt

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.

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. …