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Many of the child abuse download suspects snared in Operation Ore may have been innocent victims of credit card fraud, according to a BBC investigation.

Operation Ore, the UK's biggest ever child pornography investigation, involved the prosecution of 2,000 suspects among 7,000 Brits whose credit cards were used to pay for access to images of child abuse via a US-based portal run by Landslide Inc. Nearly half a million people worldwide paid to access the depraved material.

Lawyers and computer security experts quizzed by BBC Radio 4's The Investigation suspect that many of those arrested may have been victims of credit card fraud. The police admit the possibility that third parties used fraudulently obtained credit card details to pay for child porn, but reject the suggestion that any of those prosecuted fall into this category.

US authorities raiding Landslide found a list of credit card purchases on its servers. They passed over the details of UK suspects to British police, prompting the launch of Operation Ore in May 2002. Around 2,300 people on the list were convicted of child porn offences, while another 2,000 faced the stress of investigations that sometimes dragged on for months before charges were subsequently dropped, the BBC reports.

Experts quizzed by Channel 4 argue that the police failed to carry out proper checks designed to determine whether the suspects might have been victims of fraud.

"The police just didn't look for and didn't understand the evidence of wholesale card fraud," Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge University told the BBC. "And as a result, hundreds of people, possibly in the low thousands of people, have been put through a terrible mill with threats of prosecution for child pornography."

Simon Bunce, who was arrested after his name was found on the Landslide database, faced a six month investigation before charges were dropped. Nothing was found on his computers. "I investigated diligently myself and I established I was a victim of credit card fraud and identity theft," he said.

Police defend the record of Operation Ore. Jim Gamble, former head of the National Crime Squad which spearheaded the investigation, said 90 per cent of arrested suspects in the investigation pleaded guilty when confronted by the evidence against them. "That's people who - the allegation has been levelled against them, the evidence has been collected and they, at court or through accepting an adult caution, which 600-plus of them did, have said I am guilty of this offence," he told the BBC. "That's not about credit card fraud."

BBC Radio 4's The Investigation airs at 8pm on Thursday, 10 May. ®

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