Internet Watchdogs

Law enforcers go online with citizen sleuths to bring Internet predators to justice

  • Possesses the resources to spend hundreds of hours on a single case. Its volunteers are able to chat all hours of the day and night. "We don't have other crimes taking place that affect what we could do," explains Del Harvey, Perverted Justice law enforcement coordinator.

    Sixty-five volunteers, or contributors, conduct the chats. The organization retains approximately 20 phone verifiers (people cleared to talk to suspects because they sound like kids). Another 20 people form the support staff, and 25 individuals create content (poems, drawings and other things) for the profiles. Forty-five thousand people read the forums available at

    "We have 2,000 sworn officers, and there is no way we have the resources to do what Perverted Justice did for the NBC Dateline sting [where 51 offenders were arrested in three days]," says Lt. Chad Bianco of the Riverside County (California) Sheriff's Department. "They had 45 people working around the clock."

  • Takes on all the grunt work. Though the organization cannot apprehend the criminal, its volunteers handle the chats, collect the evidence, arrange phone conversations and set up meetings. "You don't have to worry about finding someone on staff who can convincingly sound like a 13-year-old girl. You don't have to add a computer set up that masks your IP," Harvey says. "This is a tremendous benefit to an agency lacking the money or the man power for these investigations."
  • Provides the equipment. Perverted Justice supplies computer, phone and video systems during a sting. "Everything we could not have afforded, they brought with them," Free says.
  • Sets stricter criteria for arrest than many law enforcement agencies. According to Burns, Perverted Justice subscribes to protocols well within those followed by law enforcement. For instance, there must be an age difference of at least six years. "We would never bust an 18-year-old going after a 15-year-old," Harvey clarifies.

    The difference between 18 and 15 can be explained as a high school senior dating a high school sophomore. This explanation crumbles if the 18-year-old senior seeks a relationship with a 12-year-old sixth grader. "Though the first example may be illegal under the law, it's worse in the second scenario," Harvey explains. "If an 18-year-old is going after a 12-year-old, they're already tending toward pedophilia."

    A six-year age difference is illegal everywhere, making it unnecessary for contributors to learn the laws for each state because one over arching rule satisfies all conditions. "There is no place in the country where it's legal for an 18-year-old to sleep with a 12-year-old," Harvey emphasizes.

    These electronic sleuths play teens between ages 10 and 15. Plans exist to eventually tackle problems with younger-age kids. However, the likelihood of someone under age 10 being left alone, with unsupervised access to the Internet, is greatly diminished, lessening the risk for Internet victimization.

  • Saves money. Free promotes the cost savings to a department. "There is no way we could have run an operation like this without their assistance," he says. Meanwhile, Burns claims it's a force multiplier. Working with Perverted Justice triples or quadruples the forces an agency already has, he notes.

    "We don't charge law enforcement anything — ever," stresses Harvey.

  • Has experience. According to Burns, many agencies lack expertise in these investigations, while Perverted Justice volunteers specialize in them. Its volunteers know how to chat with offenders and how to work the investigation to avoid court problems later on.

"Sometimes it was a fine line," Burns admits. "But they provided us with 140 people they were chatting with after 10 days, with possibilities of showing up for a meeting. There's no way a department five times our size could have done that."

More than one way to skin a cat
Mark Twain once wrote, "There's more than one way to skin a cat." Though he was referring to cat fish, the same applies to Perverted Justice. A department does not have to consent to a sting being broadcast on NBC in order to participate. The organization created its Information First program to interface with police in a smooth and unobtrusive way. A department simply contacts Perverted Justice to enter this arrangement. A subsequent phone call hammers out the details of jurisdiction and what the agency requires of contributor chats. Contributors receive data on every Information First agreement and work in these agreed upon locales. When they encounter a case in a given area, they contact the nearest department with an Information First arrangement. Information First agreements, with more than 300 agencies, currently cover approximately two-thirds of the nation.

In this format, Perverted Justice engages law enforcement once an individual crosses a specific, and agreed-upon, threshold of the law. Contributors forward lewd chats, instant messages, images, Web cam videos and audio logs at this point. When lacking an Information First agreement in a specific area, Perverted Justice volunteers make cold calls until they locate an agency willing to make an arrest. Contributors summon police immediately, however, if the subject sends child porn or mentions holding a position where he or she has responsibility over children.

The Riverside SD entered an Information First agreement in 2005, then later teamed with Perverted Justice on a Dateline sting. Bianco admits at times contributors' enthusiasm needed tempering in the beginning. "They were calling me at 2:30 in the morning and saying they had a guy wanting to meet at 7 a.m. and where did we want to do it," he recalls. "I had to explain that I needed at least a day to arrange people, a decoy and those types of things."

If an agency is convinced they wish to investigate Internet predator cases themselves, Perverted Justice aids them by training officers to set up profiles and chat online, and by providing access to a proxy server that masks IP addresses.

Citizen cyber sleuths
Despite its track record in working with police to collar more than 157 criminals, Perverted Justice has its detractors, including some in law enforcement who prefer that police work be left to the professionals. The fact is these citizen detectives are not sworn law enforcement, and for many law enforcers that's a sticking point. But it needn't be, say those who've worked with Perverted Justice before.

It's true the staff primarily consists of volunteers; no one is paid to chat. Perverted Justice organizers concluded long ago that compensating chatters might be a conflict of interest. "It cannot be good for the prosecution if someone is asked in court how much money they received for a chat log," Harvey explains.

But there's an in-depth background check in place to separate the wheat from the chaff. The organization also insists potential volunteers submit every user name and e-mail address they have ever used. "People leave a trail on the Internet," Harvey notes. Finally, volunteers undergo extensive training that covers setting up a profile, chatting online, steganography, Web cam transmission and documentation, sending audio files, building evidence packets, submitting evidence to law enforcement, audio authentication, making police statements, and so on.

"We are a specialized unit — experts in our field," says Harvey. "Our people are taught, trained and drilled in one specific crime, that of Internet predators and their effects."

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