By Wendy Koch
The nation's leading banks and credit card companies will soon team with law enforcement in a groundbreaking coalition to catch people who sell child pornography online.
The financial institutions will report child porn sites they discover on the Web to a central tip line, slated to expand next month to receive the information. The companies will block transactions for online child porn or, if law enforcement opens an investigation, help track sellers and buyers.
The Financial Coalition Against Child Pornography represents a new phase in the war against what has become a multibillion-dollar, international business. Internet service providers, including AOL, already report child porn sites they find.
"The scope of the problem is much greater than we ever thought. It's mind-boggling," says Ernie Allen of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a private group that runs the tip line. Allen says one website can attract tens of thousands of customers, mostly men, who use credit cards to buy $29 monthly subscriptions. "People are getting into this because they see children as a commodity. There's no question organized crime is involved."
Eager to take profitability out of online child porn, Allen and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., brought together the companies.
"This is the broadest, most comprehensive coalition we've been involved in," says Joshua Peirez, a MasterCard executive. "This is not a competitiveness issue. This is about protecting children," he says.
"I haven't seen anything like it," adds Drew Oosterbaan, chief of the Justice Department's child exploitation section. "We're here to support the effort."
Participants include Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover, which cover most of the U.S. credit card market. Also involved are Bank of America, Chase, Citigroup and PayPal. Visa, MasterCard and American Express say they will identify sites accepting their cards to sell child porn but won't reveal customers unless subpoenaed.