Cybersex – the enablers (Part 1)
All names have been masked for legal reasons, however, if anyone with a legitimate interest in knowing more about my research wishes to contact me, I will be happy to discuss further with them
The International Justice Mission report on child sexual exploitation in the Philippines was published on 20th May – https://www.ijm.org/documents/Final-Public-Full-Report-5_20_2020.pdf – providing evidence of increasing online abuse of children in the Philippines over the past three years. US officials have suggested the current lock-down may have exacerbated that trend. ( https://technology.inquirer.net/99732/study-philippines-a-global-hot-spot-for-online-child-abuse).
I wrote on March 23rd I was witnessing anecdotal evidence of an increase in cybersex activity in the Philippines during lockdown, probably to compensate for loss of formal income. So, in the light of the IJM report now is an appropriate time to open wider discussion of the cybersex enablers.
The most obvious enablers are websites devoted to connecting customer and performer. In this article we will discuss the role played by the websites, then in the second part of this series, look at how payment providers enable the economic aspects of the cybersex industry.
One man keen to share his cybersex experiences with me was a habitual drug user. He was, nevertheless, a family man married to an ex-bargirl, with one child, and another on the way.
His father was a schoolteacher who suffered from several debilitating illnesses. His mother was poorly educated, serially unfaithful to her husband and abusive to her children. A brother was shot dead by vigilantes in the Philippine “war against drugs” – in lieu of my source (who was in hiding).
He has been a regular “actor,” or cybersex provider, to feed both his habit and his family. The two sites he uses most frequently are “LJ” and “STR”. LJ makes no bones about being a site for “adult activities” and porn, whereas STR sells itself as a safe and secure site for chats.
Finding cybersex sites online is easy enough. Just type in “live cam” into Google. To the uninitiated this string would not be intuitive, but most performers have someone to guide them.
The business model under which LJ operates is a mix of peer to peer (P2P) transactions, and direct marketing with pyramid sales structures. It could also be viewed less charitably in more traditional terms as being a grand pimp with many sub-pimps. Or viewed, possibly even, as Tech enabled organised crime.
The menu bar across the top of the LJ home page lists a number of options. These include; get credits; awards; video call; favourite; messages; story; Club elites; play centre ; LJ Ap, T&Cs ; languages ; etc.
One option is “Hot flirt”. At the next level down one can choose a “chat partner” from a number of pictures with varying degrees of explicitness – and some trying (not always successfully) to look demure. Some pictures show males and females who are almost certainly still teenagers. If ever there was an example of the commoditisation of humanity this is it. The flesh on sale includes men, women, older partners, transvestites, gay relationships, lesbian relationships, couples. If you can think of it you can have it.
Once the chat partner has been selected the user clicks “live video”, and hey presto! up comes the chat partner. To initiate cybersex the user clicks the “start private” button showing at the bottom of the screen.
At that point the user is asked to log-in or register.
To register some sites, require more identification details than others, but none of them make it difficult to assume a false identity. Another website, “STR”, for example, for “safe secure and private” access requires the following log-in details:
- Email address
Once signed up the user needs to get a “GH” card (linked to a well-known interbank card association X) from LJ. This card has a well-known brand. It is a payment card (ie. no credit) which if used for LJ can only be topped up by LJ. In other words, applying for the card through the LJ website renders the card useable exclusively for LJ. business.
Payments stored on the card as value can be redeemed through X payment channels or merchants. This includes shopping in the high street, on-line, or making ATM withdrawals anywhere in the world where X is on the local network.
If the performer is operating on a P2P model, then the card and all payments will go to him/her.
However, there is another option, and that is for “bosses” to collect the card, and to link performers to the card. Under this model only “bosses” get paid through the card. The linked performers must seek their payments from the “boss” which will have gone to the “boss’” card. Payments to performers under a “boss’” control will usually be made in cash.
The set up on the website allowing bosses to collect payment on behalf of their performers facilitates their control. The extent of payments to underlying performers is usually only 20% of the amount earned, meaning that after the website has taken its fee, and the card service likewise, the boss gets to keep nearly 80% of his underlings’ earnings.
Payments into cards are posted by GH on the LJ. website in the form of card statements. Only card holders can see these, so in any “boss/performer” relationship there is next to no protection for the performer.
The performer earns a rate calculated by the time spent in the “chat”. The longer the ‘chat’ the more the performer earns. They can earn more by receiving virtual chocolates, or flowers, and other ‘petits cadeaux’ from appreciative customers.
Of course performers get wise, and if they strike up a rapport with the customer they will often arrange for their sessions to move to another chat forum (Viber and WhatsApp are popular) where they can collect 100% of their earnings.
“Off-site” payments can be made direct via Western Union, Money Gram, PayPal, or even bank-to-bank. However, remittance services are preferred as the performer may not have a bank account, and neither the performer nor the customer wants to leave too much of a trail.
Because the website considers it a breach of its policy to go “off-site”, it monitors chats for indications that the performer is soliciting an off-site arrangement. The performer nevertheless soon learns to art of coded messaging in his/her conversation with clients. For example, the performer will never give a full email address, but split it up into various parts of the conversation.
There are sites that do monitor and report chats that are potentially criminal. LJ might well claim that this is in fact what it is doing. However, given its business and gaps in controls such a claim (if it were made) might lack credibility. Nevertheless, it would be an interesting know to see how good the host site’s algorithms are at detecting “off-site” negotiations.
The incentives to go off-site are as strong for the customer as for performer. With no site fees and no “boss” commission to eat into payments the performer can afford to offer discounts.
Some clients will ask for face-to-face meetings, and will either fly to the performer’s country, or will ask the performer to fly to their country. My source was asked to fly to Germany, but refused because he is not gay, and was just faking gay to earn money.
Indeed, many performers are as much about exploiting the clients as the clients are about exploiting them. Pretending to be what you are not is all part of the chat – particularly if you are chasing the gay dollar.
If caught attempting to negotiate off-site chats first time offenders find themselves being fined by LJ. Second time offenders are blocked.
Given the financial incentives “indentured” performers will often try to recruit their own followers and become “bosses” themselves. It is not uncommon for performers to recruit their own family members. There are even examples of parents following children into cybersex. My source noted that his own 50-year-old mother is now a regular performer.
However, this means a strong likelihood minors will be recruited, either with consent, or coerced. The dilemma at the outset is often a choice between abrogating the duty of moral care and feeding the family. Unfortunately, once the choice has been made in favour of cybersex, it is easy to slip from feeding the family into sheer greed.
Some websites (WO, and STR, for example) claim it is possible to earn USD 10,000 per week. My source claimed he and others could easily earn between PP 60,000 and PP 100,000 per month from cybersex (that is between USD 1,000 and USD 2,000). Those are professional level salaries in the Philippines.
And boy, is it easy! All you need is a smartphone and an internet connection. Then as explained above simply add yourself to the website and wait for the customers to call you.
The STR website, under the heading “how to be a model”, gives the following selling points:
- Make up to USD 10,000 per week
- Work from home
- Set your own schedule
- World class tools and support
- Millions of daily visitors
Just like working for a big corporate really!
What is not mentioned, and what the performer has to learn from experience, is that sites are often blocked or taken down. The incentive to find private channels with good customers is, therefore, higher. WO was recently blocked. STR and LJ (at the time of writing this) are still active.
In the Philippines any form of cybersex is illegal, so there is also the hazard of being caught by police. That possibility, however, is sufficiently small to make the rewards worth the risk. Underfunded and under resourced law enforcement (unlike the websites themselves) do not have either the powers or tools they need to hack or eves-drop on chats.
The best law enforcement can do is pretend to be customers – with the aim of catching Filipino performers. But most performers are wise to this tactic, and so will only accept foreign clients. Besides they can practice their English with foreigners, or learn a new language, such as Russian or German (two countries with relatively high concentrations of customers).
As a result of the limitations hampering enforcement the greatest threat to a performer is the “snitcher”, usually a jealous friend and neighbour envious of the performer’s earnings.
The most prevalent risk for performers, however, is the danger of being ripped-off by customers when ‘going private’. Without the security provided by payment intermediaries, or independent systems measuring earnings, there is no way to guarantee they will receive their dues.
Sometimes customers are just plain forgetful, which given the age bracket for most customers is not surprising. To limit risk sometimes the performer will demand money before the chat.
Ultimately most performers would not want their own children (either as minors) or later as adults, doing what they are doing. Most are ashamed of what they do, but are driven in part by economic necessity, and in part by the ease with which they can make money this way. Poverty and greed work hand in hand with lust to fuel the trade.
To conclude, we are witnessing an industry enabled by technology that offers the following:
- To bring client and performer together
- To provide tools for safe and secure ‘chats’
- To provide economic incentives to participants (virtual rewards, etc)
- To create a sales and marketing model based upon direct or pyramid selling
- To facilitate payments and act as transmitters of, and exchangers, of value
- To enforce aspects of interactions, including payment, and relationships between parties
We cannot blame technology for itself being exploited in this way by the sex trade, but we can question why it is the way it is and seek to have it put right.
Although where the limits of where legitimate sexual gratification lie can be debated forever, there is little doubt that the cybersex industry greatly increases the risk and incidence of harm to minors, is exploitive, and is hardly a boon to either the individual (no matter how desperate) or to society.
Most importantly it is just plain illegal, and both the participants and enablers are breaking laws – not least money laundering laws.
In the second part I will talk about the economic enablers, and where responsibilities should lie when deploying mitigating controls. Let’s not misunderstand, this activity facilitates a form of exploitation that fits squarely into the Palermo Protocol definition of human trafficking.
End Part 1
- International Justice Mission Report on child sexual exploitation in the Philippines – https://www.ijm.org/documents/Final-Public-Full-Report-5_20_2020.pdf
- Philippine inquirer (https://technology.inquirer.net/99732/study-philippines-a-global-hot-spot-for-online-child-abuse )
The author leads TSG’s Advisory Services. He has spent many years in law enforcement and banking – specializing in financial crime risk and compliance. TSG is a Research (including due diligence) specialist, also offering Ethics Compliance and Advisory services to its clients. TSG offers expertise in Eastern Europe, as well as East Asia.