Law enforcement needs the public's help to solve most crimes, and more police are using the Internet to facilitate that communication. But when does citizen participation go too far and become online vigilantism?

Numerous law enforcement agencies across the country tap the Net for citizen input. In California, a state Highway Patrol Web page was developed for residents to report neighbors who register their vehicles more cheaply out of state, but use California highways.

Some citizens, however, take matters into their own hands, launching Web sites such as Perverted Justice, which claims to patrol Internet chat rooms to expose "wannabe pedophiles."

Perverted Justice and similar sites say part of their mission is to assist short-handed police agencies. But law enforcement organizations have an uneasy relationship with their unofficial allies.

"We call them vigilante sites," said Sgt. Dave Jones of the San Diego Police Department's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

Jones said there are "tons" of sites like Perverted Justice, where staff enter chat rooms posing as young girls or boys and engage adult men who may be looking for sex with minors. A site administrator or volunteer will log into a chat room posing as a youngster, and it is said that an adult male with bad intentions inevitably will begin chatting with the volunteer. The Perverted Justice volunteer engages the adult in conversation, and oftentimes persuades the adult to send a photo and phone number. A young-sounding volunteer confirms the individual's identity through a phone call, after which, the guy's mug is plastered on the site alongside the chat transcript.

A staff member from Perverted Justice said the site was constructed out of disgust for online enticement of children, as well as desire to help law enforcement with a national problem growing out of control.

A 1999 National Center for Missing & Exploited Children study of 1,501 teens and preteens found that one in five had been solicited for sex over the Internet. Less than 10 percent of those reported the incident to authorities.

It is clear that law enforcement wants to know about these incidents. What's not so forthcoming is their support of these online groups.

"If you see something bad out there, you have every right to take action and report it," Jones said. "What's that saying? It used to take a village to raise a kid, now it takes the whole world. But do we encourage private citizens to go out there and solicit this stuff? No, we're not allowed to and we wouldn't anyway."

It's Perverted Justice

A source from Perverted Justice said the original goal of the founder, who calls himself Xavier Von Erck, was to clean up chat rooms he frequented in Portland, Ore., which he called "cesspools," replete with adults trying to solicit youngsters. "It's a habit for some of these guys," said a member of Perverted Justice who called himself Thoebus Apollo. "It's really kind of disturbing how predator-like these chat rooms have become."

The group said it found success in cleaning up the Portland chat rooms and moved on to other areas.

Apollo said the site's contributors log in to a chat room, start up an underage profile and wait. Sometimes they post a picture (a decoy) of a young person, although he wouldn't say where they get the pictures. "I'm telling you, you'll get between three and 10 people who IM you if you say nothing more than your age, your gender and your location," he said.

Apollo said Perverted Justice does not initiate private IM conversations with individuals. Members wait in the chat room until someone looking for underage girls or boys initiates a conversation, which usually doesn't take long, he said. "It's like blood in water full of sharks."

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor