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Like Meta, banks have a responsibility to tackle online child sexual exploitation

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Following National Child Exploitation Awareness Day, it is important to note that the online child sexual exploitation (CSE) model has shifted with social media. What we once thought could only take place in faraway lands is now also happening under our noses in our neighbourhoods. 

In North America and Europe, we are seeing an alarming increase in the selling of sexually suggestive images of their children on social media for financial gain with investigations by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal uncovering shocking findings. 

According to the WSJ, hundreds of “parent-owned minor accounts,” which bypass Meta’s age-restriction policies, are offering exclusive content and interactions with minors, often in the pursuit of online fame. Many of the buyers have an open sexual interest in children. 

But while much has been said about Meta’s role – and indeed, it is up to the social media platforms and law enforcement to detect and prevent these crimes from happening – the commentary so far has been missing a principal element. 

Banks, by facilitating the flow of illicit funds that enable this abuse, also have a responsibility to detect when these crimes are happening and help to stop predators in their tracks. 

If an offender pays for content, they leave a footprint behind in their financial data. Banks can use this to look for other behaviours relating to online CSE to detect and prevent it from happening. They need to know what to look for. 

Hiding in plain sight

There are an estimated half a million predators active online each day in the US alone according to the FBI. The increasing internet use for schooling and entertainment puts children at an ever-greater risk.

We know that consumers of online CSE tend to hide their identity with a VPN and other anonymization tools. We also know they make use of pre-paid cards and gift cards to make payments to the facilitators, which are then often converted into cryptocurrencies. 

Predators send multiple payments on a single day or over consecutive days (sometimes weeks apart) using Western Union, PayPal, and other third-party payment methods; services that omit traditional identification checks. 

In isolation, these behaviours do not ring alarm bells. A VPN, for example, is not an indication of wrongdoing. But if we map the behaviours against online CSE personas, and then cross reference the financial data with the individual’s online activities and sex offender registers, seemingly innocent transactions can start to tell a much darker story.

It’s through this contextual understanding of the behaviours of online predators that we can unearth where they are hiding.

Banks can use financial data – the digital footprints of online CSE offenders – to uncover the tracks of people who are abusing, grooming, and victimizing children through their activities on social media and the wider internet.

A persona-based approach 

Banks can lead by example by moving away from outdated and rigid responses toward a more proactive and effective approach. 

Persona-based typologies are a method of categorising and understanding the different types of people, organisations and their characteristics in the context of specific financial crime types.

Through using a persona-based typology methodology, banks can see the list of common payment behaviours known as ‘red flags’ relating to online CSE. This can help financial institutions to detect, investigate, and report the potential abuse of children on the internet.

Banks can look at the crimes holistically or explore specific personas and red flags related to these crimes. For online child sexual exploitation, they’ll find “Payments to a VPN,” “Activity related to cryptocurrency” and “suspicious activity related to gift cards.”

But they’ll also come across “purchases of childlike sex dolls,” “payments to unrelated minors” and “CSE-related keywords in payment references.” 

Banks can use these red flags to understand if any of their customers are engaged in suspicious activity online. Then, armed with this information, they can start a thorough investigation and begin to collaborate with law enforcement. 

This persona-based approach allows FIs to spot patterns of behaviours in their financial data in places they would not expect to find them. 

The key to success is in getting this information to the right people within the banks. Anti-financial crime units comb through tens of thousands of accounts each year. Armed with these contextual typologies, they can help to uncover the tracks of crimes that have previously gone undetected.

Education is the key to spotting patterns of behaviour

Online CSE criminals are increasingly utilising payment systems, as evidenced by money flows either between an offender and a victim (in cases of sextortion or self-production) or between an offender and a facilitator (such as CSE livestreaming or travelling to offend). These transactions are at the core of CSE and can be vital in detecting and stopping these crimes. 

Banks have a legal obligation to detect, investigate and report financial crimes, including online CSE. They can work together, share information, and educate their anti-financial crimes teams. Persona-based typologies offer a promising step forward.  

As children spend more time online for education, entertainment, and social interaction, they become more vulnerable to exploitation. The fight against online CSE requires a comprehensive approach that addresses both traditional types of exploitation and emerging trends, such as exploitation on social media platforms. However, banks can and must do more. 

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