The trick, most likely, will only work this once. Pedophiles are evil, but they're not all stupid. Few will be fooled a second time by a virtual Filipino 10-year-old in a chat room willing to do their sordid bidding for pay.
With luck, some of the thousands of men who fell for this ruse will soon be in jail. The others may be terrified enough of discovery to back off from the little boys and girls they look to exploit on the Web. At least, that’s the hope.
According to the Dutch child-protection association Terre des Hommes, the lifelike digital victim they called "Sweetie" managed to coax a lot of information out of the creeps flocking to chat with her. Over the course of 10 weeks, some 20,000 sought her out. Of those, 1,000 could be identified from their Facebook pages and other bits of information they offered in the course of the chats. Apparently many posted images of themselves as well, as if the little girl would find their manhood irresistible.
Because the “victim” was not a real child, those operating her could have her comply with some of the fantasies the men suggested.
This is sick stuff, and Terre des Hommes hopes you will sign a petition calling on governments to crack down in every way possible on the live-chat sexual exploitation of children, which is a growing phenomenon in developing countries. But as for the cops, they're not so pleased about a non-governmental organization taking on the role of vigilante investigator.
In its YouTube presentation of the Sweetie sting, which has a dramatic narration and lighting and music worthy of Hitchcock, Terre des Hommes claims it wants to work with law enforcement. It says it has given Interpol the identities of the men who sought to victimize this little girl. But the international police agency begs to differ. It says it hasn’t received anything from the agency yet, and it implied it may not be able to do all that much with the information when it arrives.
"Whilst Interpol recognizes the important role of NGOs in child protection, it is important that any criminal investigations should only be undertaken by law enforcement professionals," Interpol said in a statement Tuesday. "This ensures that enquiries are conducted by individuals specifically trained in investigating these types of crime and that any evidence gathered is in accordance with national legislation and can therefore be submitted to the courts."
Europol, the European-wide law enforcement agency based in The Hague, struck a similar theme, saying the Terre des Hommes information had been given to the Dutch Police, who would evaluate it and pass it on to Europol, “the coordination point when it comes to this kind of criminal investigation.”
“While we value the active interest of a broad range of actors in combating child sex abuse online,” the Europol statement continued, “we believe that criminal investigations, using intrusive surveillance measures, should be the exclusive responsibility of law enforcement agencies.”
One might infer from the stilted bureaucratic language that it’s about time somebody did something as dramatic as the Sweetie sting to focus world attention on the problem of what amounts to Internet sex tourism.
The concern, of course, is that the evidence gathered won’t hold up in court. Indeed, one might ask if any country’s laws cover attempts to seduce a digital being.
It would be a shame if this sting’s net result is merely to make pedophiles more careful as they continue to hunt down the real-live little boys and girls of this world.
-- With Nadette De Visser in Amsterdam