By Deborah Charles
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Authorities have arrested 255 alleged child predators in the United States and eight other countries in an operation led by a U.S. agency that illustrated a growing trend called "sextortion" in which children are blackmailed into providing pornographic images of themselves, officials said on Monday.
The month-long Operation iGuardian in June, led by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, is part of a larger effort to identify and rescue victims of online sexual exploitation and arrest their abusers as well as others who own, trade and produce images of child pornography, officials said.
"In many instances, the abusers take advantage of a sexual image the child divulges in a chat room or over a text to force the child to continue to produce darker and more pornographic images on threat of broader disclosures of the images over the Internet," ICE Director John Morton told a news conference.
From May 28 to June 30, the agency also identified 61 victims of child sexual exploitation in the United States, Canada, Indonesia and the Netherlands, officials said.
"The sexual abuse and exploitation of children over the Internet is a pervasive and growing problem," Morton said. "Far too many children are abused by sexual predators and then repeatedly re-abused through the online exchange of the underlying photographs and videos of their exploitation."
Morton pointed to the "disturbing trend" of sextortion, which occurs when child abusers coerce or trick children - typically teenagers - into sending them pornographic images of themselves. Morton said the practice has been increasing in recent years.
He said sextortion has been on the rise over the past few years and can involve a large number of victims being blackmailed or extorted by one individual.
In addition to 244 arrests made in the United States, 11 other people were arrested in Brazil, Canada, Israel, Mexico, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand. ICE worked with local law enforcement authorities in those countries to catch the suspects, officials said.
Morton said 17 of those arrested held positions of trust, including nine teachers and three clergy members.
Investigators pointed to the case of a 25-year-old former high school cheerleading coach from Caguas, Puerto Rico. He was arrested on June 4 after police in Colorado discovered he was allegedly blackmailing a 17-year-old girl he met online in an anonymous internet video chat website.
Investigators estimate that there are more than 80 other potential victims of the accused man who remain unidentified.
"The Internet allows child pornographers to abuse on a sophisticated and international scale," Morton said.
Among the 255 alleged child abusers arrested in Operation iGuardian, 20 were involved in online solicitation including two large sextortion investigations, the agency said.
Federal officials have launched a new educational program across the country aimed at showing children and parents the risks children face online and how to report abuse.
"The sad truth is, there are many more child victims of sexual exploitation out there who have not yet been rescued and are still suffering," said John Ryan, chief executive of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
(Reporting by Deborah Charles; Editing by Will Dunham)