LONDON (AP) — Child abuse investigators in Britain, the U.S. and Australia have dismantled an organized crime group that streamed live webcam footage of child sexual abuse from the Philippines for paying viewers around the world.
An international investigation broke up the ring, which abused impoverished children as young as 6, Britain's National Crime Agency said Thursday. Authorities made 29 arrests, including 11 people in the Philippines who had facilitated the crime. Some were members of the children's families.
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 in 2012 after a routine police 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 that identified more "customers" and others involved in the ring.
U.K., Australian and U.S. authorities worked together on the case with 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, spanned 12 countries including France, Germany, Switzerland and Canada. Five people have been convicted in the U.K., 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. In one online chat log released by officials, Ford, who uses a wheelchair, suggested to Owen that he could pretend to be his "carer" so they could travel to the Philippines together to avoid detection.
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.
Operation Endeavour has triggered three other investigations into the issue of live child abuse online. British authorities say those probes have identified 733 suspects internationally, but they declined to provide details because investigations are ongoing.
Stephanie McCourt, of Britain's Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center, which is now part of the National Crime Agency, told the BBC that pedophiles should know that the Internet isn't 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?"
Philippines 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."
Sylvia Hui in London contributed to this story; Gomez reported from Manila, Philippines.