How Blogger Stung Undercover Federal Sex Sting
Sex tourism operation was inadvertently torpedoed by gadfly
A year-long Department of Homeland Security undercover operation targeting prospective “sex tourists” was torpedoed last month after a blogger unwittingly stumbled upon a sleazy web site set up by federal agents and engineered a reverse sting on investigators she mistook for pedophiles, The Smoking Gun has learned.
As detailed Wednesday by TSG, federal agents early last year launched a web site for the “Precious Treasure Holiday Company,” which offered to arrange trips to Canada from Cleveland, Ohio for customers seeking sexual encounters with children. The site–online at precioustreasureholidaycompany.com–succeeded in enticing several suspects to either arrange or explicitly discuss via e-mail trips for illicit encounters.
The demise of the web site began in mid-February when an Illinois computer programmer (who is active in online efforts to expose human trafficking and pedophiles) clicked through to the DHS site via an online link. When she landed on the site’s homepage, the woman recalled in an interview, “I was like, ‘Holy crap!’”
She immediately spotted symbols used by pedophiles to indicate “boy lover,” “girl lover,” and “child lover.” Additionally, she recognized that the acronym for the site’s name–“PTHC”–was pedophile shorthand for “preteen hardcore.” During a review of the “amateurish” site, the woman, who asked that she not be identified by name, determined that its source code included a “noindex” directive that kept the site from being crawled and preserved by search engines and the Internet Archive (archive.org).
The computer programmer also noticed that the “Precious Treasure Holiday Company” site appeared to have been designed using a 2003 version of Microsoft’s FrontPage. In retrospect, she remarked, the use of such outdated software should have tipped her to the fact that the site was a U.S. government production.
Last month, however, the DHS undercover site was abruptly taken offline by the Massachusetts-based web hosting firm on whose servers it was housed. Amazingly, the company was unaware that “Precious Treasure Holiday Company,” which it has “suspended,” was the centerpiece of the DHS operation.