The trafficking and production of child abuse material has exploded during the coronavirus lockdown in Victoria amid concerns paedophiles are also turning to online games and social media platforms to groom isolated children.
New figures from Victoria Police show the number of child abuse images and videos being traded online in Victoria has more than doubled in the last year.
At least 7.4 million files of child abuse material were detected circulating on peer-to-peer networks in the state in May 2020 - a number that police believe is likely to be a significant under-estimate of the true level of activity.
“While there’s been a lot of talk about a decline in the overall crime rate during isolation, one of the crime types that has taken off is child exploitation,” said Detective Superintendent Jane Welsh, head of the Victorian Joint Anti Child Exploitation Team.
“We're seeing a lot more traffic for IP addresses, a lot more activity in the dark web, a lot more activity in the white web.
“This kind of offending is almost 100 per cent reliant on online activity so the environment has been perfect. We've got people isolated at home, in front of their computers and other devices. They're a captive audience, frankly.”
Police software cannot detect whether one file is actually composed of multiple compressed files, which suggests the volume of materials could be substantially larger.
But the number of computers trading child abuse material tracked back to Victorian IP addresses has spiked 34 per cent over the year, suggesting supply and demand in the illegal marketplace is growing at a substantial pace.
In April, police arrested and charged a Melbourne-man and rescued several children, aged 3-5 years, after evidence revealed they had been victims of “contact offending” by someone who was already on bail for child abuse-related offences.
Investigators were also recently able to identify three young Victorian boys who appeared in a child abuse video uploaded to a website five years ago that was found in the possession of a UK-based offender.
In a series of interviews with The Age, investigators and senior officers from JACET - a joint operation with the Australian Federal Police that targets online child abuse - said the law enforcement community has detected a number of other disturbing trends.
“The most worrying is seeing the increase in violent images. And the willingness (of offenders) to view younger children,” Ms Welsh said.
The prolonged lockdown period and increased time children are spending online has also raised warning flags for JACET, which has been using covert operatives to infiltrate social media and encrypted chat groups to target groomers.
Other officers have been investigating complaints about suspect behaviour in online games such as Fortnite and Minecraft.
JACET said many parents were unaware that their children could be exposed to predators through Xbox and Playstation consoles that have text and audio chat functions.
“Children can be groomed in a matter of minutes – these offenders are often master manipulators – and their operations can be quite sophisticated,” Ms Welsh said.
Paedophiles are also increasingly accessing live-streamed, pay-per-view child abuse video sites hosted from overseas locations.
The AFP and JACET teams nationwide have recently been involved in investigations where numerous children exploited on behalf of Australian offenders have been rescued from abusers.
On Friday, a Queensland man was charged by AFP investigators with facilitating the online abuse of up to 50 child victims in the Philippines. Three victims were rescued from his alleged co-conspirator in that country in May.
Westpac is also currently being prosecuted by anti-money laundering authority AUSTRAC over allegations its international payment systems have been used to facilitate acts of abuse in the international child sex trade.
Detective Inspector Marty Allison said online exploitation was a “borderless crime”.
“The offender may very well be Victoria, but the victim may well be in Germany or Cambodia. It could be happening anywhere.”
Operations with the AFP and Australian Border Force have also been seizing child-like sex dolls that are manufactured in China and shipped into Australia from Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan disguised as toys.
The ABF has seized 75 child-like sex dolls this year to date, compared to 35 in the last financial year.
Authorities are expecting to receive a spike in new offences as lockdown restrictions ease because vulnerable children have been trapped with potential offenders and isolated from professionals like teachers and doctors who are mandatorily required to report abuse.
But the JACET officers also acknowledge that child abuse is so prevalent that’s is impossible to ever completely stop.
“There are 17,000 police in Victoria and I reckon if we put them all onto JACET we still wouldn’t make a dent in the offending. I’m not kidding,” Mr Allison said.
“Our number-one priority is the rescue and recovery of children from any further harm - way over and above how many offenders we charge or how many charges they get.”