Public warned as ‘disturbing’ new trend risks exposure to child sexual abuse material online

Published:  Mon 28 Nov 2022

The public faces an “escalating risk” of accidental exposure to child sexual abuse online as a “disturbing” new trend rewards criminals for spamming social media with links to illegal material.

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) is warning the public not to click on unknown or suspicious links amid a spike in people stumbling across links to sexual imagery of children which have been deliberately spammed on social media sites.

The IWF says criminals running these child sexual abuse sites are deliberately trying to get people in the UK to unsuspectingly click on links to child sexual abuse videos, and that online predators are being rewarded for spreading the links to the illegal material.

The sites, dubbed “invite child abuse pyramid (iCAP)” sites, incentivise users to share links to child sexual abuse sites far and wide in a “scattergun” approach which spams links to a variety of social media platforms.

The criminals running the sites benefit from increased web traffic and additional income with offenders potentially buying further videos of child sexual abuse.

Since first identifying these sites in July this year, the IWF, which is the UK based organisation responsible for finding and removing images and videos of child sexual abuse from the internet, has investigated more than 4,774 reports, leading analysts to take action on 168 websites containing imagery of child sexual abuse.

The IWF notifies the appropriate companies when this and any other type of child sexual abuse material distribution is encountered.

Tamsin McNally, Hotline Manager at the IWF, said: “It’s a new trend and is continuing. We are getting more and more URLs reported every single day, more and more people seem to be being exposed to them.

“We believe it’s similar to a pyramid scheme. It seems to be the new method of profiting from child sexual abuse material and members of the public are saying these links are routinely being spammed all over social media.”

Ms McNally said illegal websites provide users with links and then incentivise them via a “points system” to share the link widely. The more people who click through, the more points are earned which allows the original user to access more videos of child sexual abuse.

She said this greatly increases the risk that members of the public will accidentally be exposed to this criminal material online, and that people looking for “leaked” adult videos are being deliberately targeted.

Ms McNally said many people clicking the links would be seeing child sexual abuse for the first time, and that the spamming is an attempt to draw more people into viewing this illegal content.

She added: “They are being shared with abandon. It’s a scattergun approach of getting them out as much as possible, as far as possible, as quickly as possible.”

The criminals operating these sites benefit financially from the increased web traffic generated by the users as well as offenders potentially purchasing content from the sites.

Susie Hargreaves OBE, Chief Executive of the IWF, said: “It’s really, really disturbing, and the public is now facing an escalating risk of being exposed to this material.

“It’s insidious and is being treated like a game or marketing ploy by these criminals. It’s an astoundingly callous way of profiteering from the abuse, rape and sexual torture of children.

“The links are an attempt to attract new users into viewing abhorrent videos that they were not expecting to see.

“We have strong relationships with social networks globally and we’re working closely with them to ensure these links are removed as fast as possible.”

Ms Hargreaves said users should avoid clicking on unsolicited links or suspect posts, and that any suspected child sexual abuse material on the internet should be reported to the Internet Watch Foundation.

She added: “In each video, and each image on these sites, there is a real victim. A childhood forever marked by the horror of that abuse.

“These sites revictimise children by spreading the abuse further, and they risk exposing unexpecting members of the public to this material. Material which can be traumatic to see and which can stay with people for life.”

The public is given this advice when making a report to www.iwf.org.uk:

  • Do report images and videos of child sexual abuse to the IWF to be removed. Reports to the IWF are anonymous.
  • Do provide the exact URL where child sexual abuse images are located.
  • Don’t report other harmful content – you can find details of other agencies to report to on the IWF’s website.
  • Do report to the police if you are concerned a child may be in immediate danger.
  • Do report only once for each web address – or URL. Repeat reporting of the same URL isn’t needed and wastes analysts’ time.
  • Do report non-photographic visual depictions of the sexual abuse of children, such as computer-generated images. Anything of this nature, which is also hosted in the UK, the IWF can get removed.
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