In the "bedroom" community of Peachtree City, Ga., for example, which has one of the highest per capita incomes in the state, those arrested include a Web designer employed by a school board, a production engineer for a major broadcasting company, and a school superintendent who allegedly kept child pornography on his work computer and allegedly approached his victims online while at work.
The vast majority of predators are male. However, there have been cases of mothers willing to sell their children for sex and, oddly enough, McLaughlin's first case in 1996 involved a woman who was meeting male teens online and participating in cybersex, phone sex, and actual meetings.
These pedophiles cross all class, cultural, ethnic, and age boundaries. The Keene (N.H.) Police Department has arrested several teachers, a priest, a police officer, a psychologist, and many other prominent members of society.
When asked to profile cyber predators, Condon issues a grim laugh. Then he says, "Male and alive."
Investigators are quick to point out that predators are everywhere, in rural settings and large cities alike, and that they're no longer stereotypical sleaze-bags who hang out at the schoolyard holding a bag of candy.
"Everybody we've arrested has had a college degree," says Murray. "The majority are white, anywhere from mid-20s to late 40s, with families and children, living in the suburbs, in very nice houses. They're working Little League and they're presidents of their homeowners' associations. We're talking about people that most parents would never suspect."
What's worse is that they're often very aggressive. The anonymity of the Internet has made child molesters bolder than they were 10 years ago when they were forced to approach their potential victims in public, and they expend an amazing amount of energy "grooming" their prey. Many send graphic pictures to test the waters and judge how far their potential victim might be willing to go, or they use such images to desensitize the child.
And while some predators only want to achieve sexual gratification online, a surprising number of them are willing to travel to have sex with their victims. Unfortunately, many of these "travelers" have struck before.
"I just recently arrested a fellow here in Tallahassee," says Condon, "and after going through his e-mail, I found out that he had actually traveled to California several years ago and had sexual relations with a girl. And at the time of his arrest, he'd been talking with one teenage girl in Orlando, one in South Carolina, and two detectives from two separate departments in Ohio."
An Accidental Assignment
Condon's department, like so many others that now investigate Internet-related child victimization cases, never set out to hunt online pedophiles. It just happened.
"It's an assignment I don't think any of us really foresaw in our careers," he says. "It's obviously something that didn't exist 15 years ago. This was just something that came to the attention of those of us who were involved in computer crimes, and we started doing it. A lot of us just kind of fell into it, more than anything else."
Many other departments report similarly inauspicious beginnings for their online predator investigation teams. For example, after several sexual assaults occurred in Lenyi's jurisdiction, officers discovered that they were a direct result of meetings that took place online. That was when local detectives went from simply monitoring the chat rooms to actively participating in the discussions and seeking out predators.
Other law enforcement officers stumbled into the profession from a different angle.
"I arrested a sex offender through a sting, and after he went through the system he worked in an undercover capacity," says McLaughlin. "One day, back in 1995, he brought in a laptop computer and told me that the machine would revolutionize child exploitation. He spoke about the transmission of child pornography and how detection could be avoided. He further said that children, otherwise unapproachable by sex offenders, would now be accessible through the Internet."
Obviously, the offender knew what he was talking about. Law enforcement officials now know first hand just how vulnerable children and teens are to this form of victimization. For them, protecting children by tracking online pedophiles is a high priority, but for some the motivation is more personal.
"I do this because I was molested as a child," says Posey, whose years of tracking pedophiles as a civilian inspired the 2003 television movie, "Defending our Kids: the Julie Posey Story," and whose experience with a serial rapist at age 16 led to her chance meeting with Harris. "I want to prosecute these guys and make sure that they can't victimize any more kids."