Thousands of would-be predators asked a girl to perform sex acts online unaware that she was actually a computer-generated digital decoy named "Sweetie" created by a charity.
In little more than two months, more than 1,000 people were identified by children's rights group Terre des Hommes after they offered money to the fake profile for a variety of sex acts. They included 254 Americans.
Overall, almost 20,000 people made approaches to the virtual girl -- who was modeled on a 10-year-old -- but the charity was unable to track them all down.
“The child predators doing this now feel that the law doesn’t apply to them,” said Hans Guyt, director of campaigns at Terre des Hommes Netherlands. “The Internet is free, but not lawless."
He added that real children were often forced into remote commercial child sexual exploitation -- or "webcam child sex tourism" -- by adults or extreme poverty.
“Sometimes they have to testify against their own family, which is almost an impossible thing to do for a child,” Guyt added. "Once a child has become a victim of sexual abuse, rehabilitation can take many years. It is along, painful, and labor-intensive process for children to overcome the trauma."
Using methods similar to Dateline NBC's "To Catch a Predator," the researchers worked from a building in Amsterdam during the summer. “Sweetie” was placed in public Internet chat rooms and the charity's investigators waited for her to be approached.
"Sweetie" was deluged with requests for sexual webcam performances and while the would-be predators interacted with the virtual girl, researchers gathered information about their identities.
The details of the 999 men and one woman that they managed to identify have now been passed on Interpol. However, police will only be able to prosecute suspects if they gather their own evidence.
“The United Nations has established laws that make this child abuse nearly universally illegal,” Guyt said. “The biggest problem is that the police don’t take action until child victims file reports, but children almost never report these crimes. We want governments to adopt pro-active investigation policies that give law enforcement agencies the mandate to actively patrol public Internet hot spots where this child abuse is taking place every day.”
An Interpol spokesperson said the agency was aware of the investigation and that Dutch authorities would provide the charity's evidence after conducting their own assessment.