KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 29 — The prevalence of the Internet today means that the four walls of your home alone may no longer be enough to keep your child protected against the dangers of crime.

Even in the safety of home, children may find themselves being preyed upon. What kind of dangers do they face?

Bukit Aman’s Sexual, Women and Child Investigation Division’s (D11) principal assistant director Assistant Commissioner of Police Siti Kamsiah Hassan told Malay Mail that online risks to children include falling victim to scams and being recruited for extremism or drug trafficking.

But in terms of sexual crimes against children, Siti Kamsiah said the current trend is for offenders to use a fake identity online to befriend children, before grooming them online for sexual activities or engaging in sexual communication with them, which could lead to further crimes such as “sextortion” or blackmailing them over sexual content.

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These could take place on social media apps, dating apps and even online games, she said.

“Usually they use a fake identity, as children would not be comfortable with someone older, so they would use an identity as if it is the same age as the victim who is targeted, so that there is trust,” she said in an interview with Malay Mail.

Siti Kamsiah said these offenders would usually go to social media websites such as Instagram and Facebook where they could easily find and identify targets using the interests that children share online, using this to build rapport and gain the victims’ trust.

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“For example, the case that we had previously, the victim said they are a fan of K-pop, the suspect then used deception and claimed to have access to K-pop group. They have a common interest so it is easy for them to communicate, then from there, they deceive the victim,” she said, adding that suspects would typically try to shift the communication to private chats on apps such as WhatsApp where it would be harder to detect their activities.

“In private chats, they start grooming so that the victim would have attraction, would have fun, have trust, then only they ask for something that the victim might not have given if it is to a stranger or if they do not trust or do not like the person. That is among the modus operandi,” she said.

After befriending the child, the suspect would start to shower the target with affection to make them feel “special”, in love, or in a special relationship.

“So once the victim starts to trust the suspect, the suspect will start to do something to get what they want, they will do child grooming to get sexual materials. The suspect will start to ask for what they want, ask for nude photos and so on, maybe for self-satisfaction or exploitation to sell for profits or to get compensation from the victim. That is the method they use,” she said.

Siti Kamsiah said some suspects would also target child victims — usually boys — in online games, citing the popular game PUBG as an example.

She said suspects — usually adults with funds — would offer to buy in-game currency for the targets, but ask for something in return, such as nude photographs or pictures of the children’s private areas.

Despite the new terminology, Siti Kamsiah said the trend of children falling prey to sexual abuse online is not new, and might appear to be lower than reality due to under-reporting. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin
Despite the new terminology, Siti Kamsiah said the trend of children falling prey to sexual abuse online is not new, and might appear to be lower than reality due to under-reporting. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin

The door to danger

According to Siti Kamsiah, children in their naivete would not realise that they were being groomed or targeted for sexual crimes.

She said suspects may show nude photos daily to the victims and use words such as marriage to manipulate the child into relenting to provide the images or even meeting, when they could then sexually abuse them.

Just looking at the Sexual Offences Against Children Act gives you an idea of the multiple risks of sexual abuse against children, both virtual and in the real world.

These crimes include the using of children in child sexual abuse materials (CSAM) — previously known as child pornography — and the making, selling, collecting, accessing, owning of such CSAM; sexual communication with a child, child grooming and meeting after child grooming; physical and non-physical sexual assault on a child for the purpose of committing sexual crimes.

The Malaysian government via Parliament took the step to strengthen the Sexual Offences Against Children Act, with amendments that took effect on July 11, 2023 introducing the new offences of Section 15A (sexual performance by a child) and Section 15B (sexual extortion of a child). These are otherwise known as covering the illegal activities of livestreaming and sextortion.

Asked how the amendments help, Siti Kamsiah said police could previously already carry out enforcement against the crimes of livestreaming and sextortion under minor provisions in the Sexual Offences Against Children Act, but new provisions provide clear definitions and elements that make it easier to investigate and prosecute offenders.

“For example, previously for sextortion we used Section 15(b), but now it is a stand-alone section on the offence, it can stand on its own and has clear definition,” she said. Section 15(b) has since been replaced with Section 15B that details what amounts to sexual extortion of a child, which is punishable with a maximum 10-year jail term.

Previously under the Act, livestreaming was covered under Section 15, such as when children are used to show gestures or children are used to show parts of their body.

But in the new Section 15A, the livestreaming offence covers any involvement in such activities, and simply joining or viewing such livestreams is enough to be a crime, Siti Kamsiah said.

Another improvement with the July 2023 amendments is the new terminology of CSAM to replace the previous term “child pornography” in the entire Sexual Offences Against Children Act.

“So we standardised this to the definition at the international level, so it is easier to understand at the global level as the offence is the same. The term ‘child pornography’ previously is narrow, so if we use ‘child sexual abuse material’, it is wide,” she said of the increased scope of coverage of the term CSAM.

Not ‘normal’ at all

Despite the new terminology, Siti Kamsiah said the trend of children falling prey to sexual abuse online is not new, and might appear to be lower than reality due to under-reporting.

“Maybe they think it is personal or private conversation, so they don’t think others know, so it could be that many of these incidents happened, but no reports are made.

“Sometimes when there’s no physical contact, it is just materials that are circulated or feeling uncomfortable with such communication, they do not come to lodge a report,” she said, adding that such victims may not step forward as they have not suffered physical harm such as being injured or being raped.

Some victims may choose not to lodge reports because they were not physically abused while others might not see any harm or value in the CSAM material they were coerced into providing to their abusers, she said.

Siti Kamsiah also said some children might think it safe to share explicit photographs of themselves so long as their faces are not visible, but warned that these could still be linked to their identities through various accounts.

She stressed that the public should not “normalise” sexual offences as it could lead to such crimes not being reported.

“Such cases, if the child thinks they don’t want to make a report about holding and hugging others, they have normalised it,” she said.

She highlighted the importance of increasing awareness for the public to protect themselves, and to encourage reporting once they are aware of what amounts to a sexual offence against children.

In Malaysia, failure to make a police report about sexual crimes being committed against children is an offence.

Under Section 19 of the Sexual Offences Against Children Act, you could be liable to a maximum RM5,000 fine if you fail to report the commission of or the intent to commit a sexual offence against children.

Keep an eye out for Part II of this story, on how parents can keep their children safe online.