MANILA, Philippines — A two-day international operation targeting organized crime networks behind child exploitation 'sextortion' cases arrested 58, including three men linked to the group which harassed a Scottish teenager. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) participated in this Interpol-coordinated operation.
Daniel Perry, a 17-year-old victim of an online blackmail attempt, died after jumping off the Forth Road Bridge near Edinburgh, Scotland, in July 2013.
In August 2013, HSI special agents in Manila received a request for assistance from the United Kingdom's National Crime Agency (NCA) to assist Scotland Police with the investigation involving the suicide of Daniel Perry. HSI Manila was asked to assist with this investigation based on its expertise in investigations involving child sexual exploitation and the potential of discovering U.S. victims.
"Combating the sexual exploitation of children is a global effort," said HSI Office of International Affairs Assistant Director John G. Connolly. "HSI works closely with the law enforcement community around the world on joint operations and provides training and expertise to many foreign countries. Our mission takes us across oceans to protect children wherever they may be and ensure that criminals are brought to justice."
In the first operation of its kind, information shared between the Interpol Digital Crime Centre (IDCC), Hong Kong Police Force, Singapore Police Force and the Philippines National Police (PNP) Anti-Cybercrime Group led to identifying between 190 and 195 individuals working for organized crime groups operating out of the Philippines.
Close cooperation with Scotland Police, HSI Manila, the Philippines Department of Justice's Office of Cybercrime, and the UK's National Crime Agency CEOP Command, resulted in identifying sextortion victims in Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States. Potential victims were also traced to Australia, Korea and Malaysia, in addition to the hundreds of individuals in Hong Kong and Singapore already reported as victims.
Codenamed "Operation Strikeback," a series of raids was carried out by the PNP in Bicol, Bulacan, Laguna and Taguig City areas in the Philippines on April 30 and May 1. These operations resulted in seizing 250 pieces of electronic evidence including mobile phones, laptops, network and storage devices, as well as live ammunition.
Among those arrested were Vincent Regori Bravo, Jomar Palacio, aka Park Ji Man, and Archie Tolin, aka Gian, who face charges including the violation of access devices regulation act. They are suspected of targeting UK victims.
Operating on an almost industrial scale from call center-style offices, such cyber-blackmail agents are trained and offered bonus incentives such as holidays, cash or mobile phones for reaching their financial targets.
Sextortion is often defined as sexual blackmail in which sexual information or images are used to extort sexual favors and/or money from the victim; blackmail demands range between $500 and $15,000. In addition to the Asia-based networks, there is also evidence of individuals and groups operating out of Africa targeting victims throughout Europe.
"The scale of these sextortion networks is massive, and run with just one goal in mind: to make money regardless of the terrible emotional damage they inflict on their victims," said Director of the IDCC Sanjay Virmani.
"The success of Operation Strikeback is down to the cooperation between the law enforcement agencies in the involved countries, particularly the PNP, and also demonstrates Interpol's key role in coordinating and supporting transnational investigations," said Noboru Nakatani, executive director of the Interpol Global Complex for Innovation (IGCI) in Singapore which houses the IDCC. "It is also a clear indicator that when the IGCI officially opens its doors later this year, this increased opportunity for information-sharing will lead to further successes and help close the net on cybercriminals around the world."
PNP Chief Alan la Madrid Purisima said they would continue to identify and arrest anyone involved in sextortion.
UK Ambassador to the Philippines Asif Ahmad said, "Cybercrime comes in many shapes and forms. It recognizes no national boundaries and can affect every one of us. The international cooperation displayed by the different law enforcement agencies across the world in this investigation should send a message to those who commit cybercrime – there is nowhere to hide."
Material seized during Operation Strikeback will be analyzed by specialist officers from the involved countries to identify any additional victims and for follow-up investigations.
HSI and its international law enforcement partners investigate other areas of child exploitation, including pedophiles sexually blackmailing children where the offenders already have a sexual interest in children. Through social networks, they assume the identity of a child to befriend and gain the trust of victims. These victims are then encouraged to share naked images depicting sexual activity. The blackmailer then threatens to share these images to coerce the child to make additional and usually more explicit images.
The sexual abuse of children 'to order' live on webcam is another type of online child sexual abuse. Criminal gangs offer street children or children from their own family for sexual abuse by pedophiles in other countries in exchange for money.
The offenders can be located anywhere in the world and pay the criminal gangs which are controlling access to the children. The foreign offender can direct the sexual abuse, either towards a child or between children; the offenders pay for it to be streamed live.
Interpol's Trafficking in Human Beings and Child Exploitation unit manages the International Child Sexual Exploitation (ICSE) database which contains nearly 2,500 identified victims of sexual exploitation from 41 countries. As well as providing vital assistance in locating offenders, the ICSE database is also an important tool in avoiding duplication of effort by police trying to identify victims who have already been rescued.
HSI encourages the public to report suspected child predators and any suspicious activity through its toll-free hotline at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or by completing its online tip form. Both are staffed around the clock by investigators. Suspected child sexual exploitation or missing children may be reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, an Operation Predator partner, via its toll-free 24-hour hotline, 1-800-THE-LOST.
HSI is a founding member and the U.S. representative of the Virtual Global Taskforce, an international alliance of law enforcement agencies working together to prevent and deter online child sexual abuse.
HSI's Office of International Affairs (OIA) is responsible for enhancing national security by conducting and coordinating international investigations. With agents in 67 offices in 48 countries around the world, OIA represents ICE's broadest footprint beyond our borders. HSI attaché offices work with foreign counterparts to identify and combat transnational criminal organizations before they threaten the United States.