Like so many parents, Toronto dad Cliff Ford just wanted to keep his children safe online.

He had no idea that his efforts would eventually help U.S. authorities bust an online child exploitation ring based in Ohio.

It all started in January, when Ford’s daughter received an email from a stranger with the subject line, “Hey sexy.”

He saw it immediately, as her emails are forwarded to his cellphone — Ford requires his children to provide him with access to all of their email and social media accounts.

“If I need to, I can spot check and make sure they are safe,” he told CBC News.

Ford’s daughter had been innocently messaging with a stranger in an online chat room in the days before she received the unsettling email.

She told him about the conversations, and instead of cutting off the contact, Ford decided to pose as his daughter and see if he could get more information.

'I could feel my blood boiling'

Ford carried on the charade over three days, and managed to find out the mysterious messenger’s name and address — even what model car he drives.

Ford discovered that the emails were coming from 30-year-old Nicholas Bowers, who lives just outside Akron, Ohio.

Over their back-and-forth conversation, Bowers’s messages became increasingly sexual in nature.

Bowers’ wrote things like, “I want to hold you and kiss you,” and, “It turns me on a lot now knowing you are 12.”

One morning, Bowers sent an email with an attachment.  It was a video, intended for Ford’s daughter, which showed Bowers masturbating.

“When he sent the attachment and I realized what it was, I had to shut it off because I could feel my blood boiling inside me knowing what this guy’s intentions were,” Ford said.

Ford decided to take the material he had gathered to police in Toronto, who carried on the ruse and continued communicating with Bowers.

Eventually Toronto police contacted local authorities and the FBI in Akron, and a joint investigation began on both sides of the border.

The FBI arrested Bowers on Jan. 14, finding USB keys, computers and CDs that contained child pornography. The investigation soon revealed that Bowers was a primary player in a local child pornography ring that traded pictures and videos of minors online.

20-year prison sentence

“I was just trying to protect my daughter,” Ford said. “I had no idea there would be other victims.”

Bowers was charged with a host of child pornography-related charges, including receiving, distributing and possessing visual depictions of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct, transferring obscene material to a juvenile and enticement.

Ford travelled to Ohio to testify against the man who tried to lure his daughter online.

Bowers later pleaded guilty, and last week was sentenced by a U.S. federal judge to more than 20 years in prison.

“Attentive parents and swift law enforcement action has ensured that Mr. Bowers will not be trolling for minors on the internet,”said FBI special agent Stephen Anthony, who helped investigate the case.

“This international collaborative law enforcement effort demonstrates that preying on our most precious commodity, our children, will not be tolerated.”

With files from CBC's Trevor Dunn