By MARK SHERMAN, Associated Press Writer
Seconds after she announces her presence in an online chat room, the
girl is besieged by a half-dozen men who want to know more about her.
"r u a virgin?" one man asks, after about a dozen quick exchanges that
begin with her age (13) and why she is home on a school day (illness).
The edgy online banter is taking place in an AOL chat room ostensibly
for women who like older men, but known as a forum for men who want to
make contact with girls. The supposed 13-year-old in this case,
though, is not a child, but an undercover FBI agent who is working out
of the bureau's main child pornography unit in a suburban Washington
The demonstration for an Associated Press reporter was intended to
show off the FBI's growing effort to fight child pornography, which
has yielded increases of more than 2000 percent in arrests and 350
percent in federal prosecutions over 10 years.
Agents use chats and other more private exchanges to seek out
potential pedophiles and pornographers. Another man who believed he
was talking to a 13-year-old asked how old she likes her men, then,
"virgin?" The agents save transcripts of the online conversations,
photographs that get exchanged and telephone numbers that are
revealed, intentionally or not.
These introductory conversations, in some cases, lead to illegal
activity; but the ease with which they're made show how large a
problem looms. Child pornography is frighteningly easy to find on the
Internet -- images are traded freely, children are lured into dangerous
situations and sexual abuse of children as young as infants is
available on demand.
Finding people who want child pornography "is like shooting fish in a
barrel," said Stacey Bradley, an FBI supervisory agent in the Innocent
Images unit. "Most people have no idea the _huge_ number of pedophiles
there are around the world, or even, for that matter, the United
States," she added.
One out of every five children ages 10 to 17 receive sexual
solicitations online, according to the National Center for Missing and
"The Internet is a great place, but there are certain parts of town
you don't want to be," said Arnold Bell, chief of the FBI's Innocent
There is wide agreement that images are proliferating and that
peddlers of child pornography are becoming more savvy to counter the
enhanced police effort to combat it.
Orin S. Kerr, a George Washington University law professor and expert
on computer crime, said investigators posing as children typically
steer clear of unfairly entrapping people on the other end of their
online conversations by taking a passive approach.
"If agents are careful, entrapment never needs to come up. They take a
suggestive screen name, go into a chat room and wait to be
contacted. The screen will light up," Kerr said.
He said he was aware of only one case that was tossed out of court in
which a state investigator, posing as a mother, was found to have
improperly lured the defendant by aggressively pushing him to get
involved with her children.
More often, authorities struggle to keep pace with the availability of
sexually explicit pictures of children and a lingering view among the
public that what advocates and police call child pornography often is
women dressing up to appear younger, said Ernie Allen, the missing and
exploited children center's president.
The real danger that child pornography presents, shown in several
recent cases of sexual abuse that have come to public attention, "is a
phenomenon that American and the world has only begun to understand, "
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales recently called attention to the
issue in a speech filled with graphic images that he said was
necessary to get the nation's attention.
On a recent day in the FBI unit, a working group that includes police
officials from several countries was working a major investigation
that appeared to reach into most states and dozens of countries,
according to pins that were stuck into maps on the wall. Bell, the
unit chief, would not discuss the investigation.
Several agents acknowledged that they can get discouraged by the
volume of images and the number of people who appear eager to see
them. Bradley, the FBI supervisor, estimated that 80 percent of the
customers for child pornography are in the United States. "But there
are so many pedophiles, its like a 'needle in a haystack'; the
pedophiles are the haystack, they are everywhere."
"But even if I stop just one person from getting molested, it makes a
difference," she said.
The undercover agent chatted with one man for more than an hour. She
tried to stay in character with frequent use of the word "like" and
alternate spellings that produced "kewl" for cool.
This man sent a photograph, ostensibly of himself, showing a balding
man with a mustache and beard. He said he had three grandchildren and
asked whether the 13-year-old had a computer in her bedroom, a setup
that would allow her easier access with less parental interference.
While this man mainly avoided risque questions and answers, the
undercover agent regarded him as the most promising prospect for
engaging in darker, possibly illegal exchanges, should they meet again
On the Net:
FBI Innocent Images program: http://www.fbi.gov/innocent.htm
Justice Department child exploitation and obscenity section:
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children:
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.
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