11/04/2013 01:58 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Dozens of Canadians willing to pay for web sex with 'virtual' 10-year-old girl

A sting operation has turned up dozens of Canadians among thousands of adults willing to pay to watch a 10-year-old Filipino girl perform sex acts on a webcam, an international children's rights group said Monday.

The group Terres des Hommes, operating out of Amsterdam, said 54 Canadians were among more than 1,000 adults from 71 countries identified during the 10-week project.

"It's frightening to see that these people think that the Internet is a completely lawless space," said one of the researchers for the group, who identified himself only as Peter for fear of reprisals.

"The most shocking part of this — aside from the horrific child-abuse material that we were sometimes sent — was just the fact that it was so easy to catch these people. They have zero risk perception."

Detailed identification information — including names, addresses, telephone numbers and email addresses — was now in the hands of Interpol for passing on to national law-enforcement authorities to investigate, Peter told The Canadian Press from Amsterdam.

Canada's Criminal Code prohibits accessing child pornography and child prostitution, so the law should be adequate for prosecution, the group said.

The sting involved setting up a pretend 10-year-old girl Filipino girl named "Sweetie," who signed on to various public chat rooms that cater to teens and children. Predators would latch onto her almost immediately.

"Show me your legs," one wrote. "Do you like to wear your bra?" said another. "Babyyyy how much? $$$" said one named Dirty.

As a backup, the four researchers created a 3-D animation of "Sweetie," though it was seldom necessary to use it, to convince the men they were dealing with a real child.

In all, 20,172 adults offered to pay between $1 and $100 using untraceable prepaid credit cards to have "Sweetie" perform a sex show via webcam — despite being told at least twice that she was only 10.

"It was so clear that these people were after 10-year-old children," Peter said.

"Some men would say, 'I'll pay you $500 to see you and your six-year-old sister have sex'."

Exploited children suffer from depression, anxiety and aggression and have no idea about normal relationships and sexuality, Terres des Hommes said.

Nor do they tend to go to the police. The group said it knew of only six convictions for such abuse.

One occurred in June in Canada, when a 62-year-old man from North Saanich, B.C., was sentenced to five years for using a webcam to direct a Chinese father to sexually assault his young son.

In all, the researchers identified more than 1,000 predators — including 254 Americans and 110 Brits — saying they would have been able to ID far more if they had more time and resources.

Until now, Peter said, he believed police had a good handle on the webcam sex tourism. The project has shown that's not the case, he said.

"The idea that police are on top of this kind of child abuse is just an illusion," Peter said.

"It was so clear that they have no fear of police. They don't even really try to hide their identities."

Webcam child-sex tourism is distinct from child pornography and human trafficking, which have become hardened industries controlled by international criminal syndicates, Peter said.

However, the preying on children in other countries via webcam is still a relatively new phenomenon involving individuals and sometimes families, he said.

"It hasn't yet hardened into a criminal industry," Peter said. "If police stop it now, then maybe we will be able to curb this practice."

The group has posted a documentary about its investigation on YouTube — youtube.com/sweetie — and begun a petition aimed at pressing authorities to do more to halt such illegal sex shows.

"The RCMP has no information to provide at this time," a spokesman said.