updated 10/12/2004 4:52:40 PM ET 2004-10-12T20:52:40

The U.S. government and a Christian group on Tuesday announced an advertising campaign aimed at deterring American tourists from sexually exploiting children overseas.

A huge billboard that looms over traffic in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh warns in English: “Abuse a child in this country, go to jail in yours.”

The State Department, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the group World Vision are behind the roadside, television, print and Internet ads in the United States and the prime sex-tourism destinations Cambodia, Costa Rica and Thailand.

Similar messages are being broadcast in airports and in-flight videos to let sex tourists know they are being closely watched.

Some 2 million children, mostly in poor countries, are believed to be trapped in the underground sex industry. World Vision said an estimated 25 percent of the tourists who prey on them are U.S. citizens, while the proportion is closer to 80 percent in some Latin American countries.

A typical offender is a businessman at a bar or club who is propositioned and decides to experiment, said World Vision project director Joseph Mettimano.

Video: Children for sale: A rare view “A lot of these guys are married, successful businessmen,” Mettimano said. “The last thing they want is for people back here in the States to know that they are having sex with little girls and boys overseas.”

World Vision is spending $800,000, which includes a $500,000 State Department grant, on the campaign. With 20,000 employees in 100 countries, the group acts as eyes and ears for U.S. and local authorities to identify offenders.

In the United States, sexually exploiting a child overseas is a federal crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison.

Seven U.S. men have been arrested since President Bush signed the Protect Act in April 2003. In the first case, Michael Lewis Clark, 70, was sentenced in Seattle in June to eight years in prison for abusing two Cambodian boys, aged 10 and 13.

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