(Photo: Screen Grab via CNN)
Some 20,000 child sex predators from 71 countries around the world, including at least 254 identified from the Unites States alone, approached a 10-year-old Filipina girl online in search of sexual stimulation. But the girl isn't real.
She is a computer generated avatar affectionately called "Sweetie" that was used this spring by researchers in an undercover operation by the Dutch chapter of child aid organization Terre des Hommes (TDH) to catch webcam child-sex tourists, according to a report in Canada's Globe and Mail.
Researchers spent two-and-a-half months posing as 10-year-old old Sweetie in public Internet chat rooms, and recorded contact with a diverse group of 20,000 child predators who encouraged the virtual girl to take off her clothes to arouse themselves for pay.
"The moment we got online, we were swamped, like an avalanche," said TDH special projects director Hans Guyt in a news conference webcast from The Hague.
The organization, which is working to stop the exploitation of children in developing countries, decided to conduct the operation because of a worrying increase in child-abuse cases.
"Webcam child-sex tourism is spreading like an epidemic," explained Albert Jaap van Santbrink, director of TDH Netherlands.
"These people think they are invisible. These people think they are untouchable," added Guyt.
"It petrifies you. It's really scary," said one of the researchers with the project, who was unidentified for security reasons in a BBC interview posted on YouTube.
Researchers were able to identify 1,000 adults in 65 countries including 254 in the United States, 110 in Britain, 54 in Canada, 46 in Australia and 44 in Germany. They turned this information over to the police.
The unidentified researcher who spoke with BBC explained that what was really worrying about the global increase in child-predators on the Internet is the growing number of young girls in developing nations who might be enticed by money into these unhealthy virtual relationships.
"We know there are a lot of predators here. That's not news…What's new is girls from developing nations getting connected and seeing they can get paid for it," said the researcher.
"Parents, criminals who see that there is good money to be made if you put kids behind webcams and let them chat here on the Internet in these public chat room," he said.
He also explained that he found the diversity of the profiles of child predators shocking.
"It is terrifying. It's really scary. It breaks your stereotypical image of a predator. Because before, I thought they were all 45-year-old males with very long coats and a little bit dodgy," he said. "Now, it appears that these guys have normal jobs, normal families, can be my age, can be older, can be younger. The diversity is enormous."