Online Vigilantes

Are citizens' groups overstepping their bounds in trying to reduce crime?

by / October 4, 2004
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."

For every individual with his mug posted on the Perverted Justice site, four or five others engaged a Perverted Justice member in chat room conversation but weren't "busted" for one reason or another, according to the group.

"I hope the ones that get away read the Web site so they can stop what they're doing," Apollo said.

Tips from Perverted Justice have resulted in a few arrests, and some predators have found themselves staring at television cameras when they thought they were meeting a youth for sex. These are called "group media busts," where news organizations are alerted to a meeting between Perverted Justice and a would-be perpetrator.

Most public safety agencies view these activities with ambivalence, at best.

Tom Kelley, spokesman for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, said law enforcement will generally not endorse or condemn such groups, but that Abbott believes this type of operation should be left to law enforcement.

"We believe that we and other law enforcement agencies need to do those kinds of investigations undercover, if you will," Kelley said. "And bring a clean, clear case to court for trial and not through another channel not recognized as legitimate law enforcement."

Perverted Justice started with the goal of publicly shaming those who use the Web to solicit sex from minors. Lately, however, the group has focused on trying to help police lock up offenders.

"More and more, we're working with police and trying to revise the protocols and make the site better in regard to police action," Apollo said. "Our ultimate goal is to have police follow through in a legal manner and get convictions."

To help do that, Perverted Justice is creating a data center, a private file-sharing network on its Web site. The center will store and encrypt chat logs as evidence to share with law enforcement. Perverted Justice also said it is embarking on a collaborative effort with law enforcement where the group will agree not to pursue a suspect if law enforcement takes the case first.

"Police, for all their good efforts, are under-funded and understaffed," Apollo said. "They're not capable of approaching this full blast. They have a lot of good efforts in the field, but it's not creating an impact in the chat rooms themselves. We're not trying to replace the police effort. We're attempting to work with them at every level to make things better."

Law enforcement officials are skeptical, though.

Jones of the San Diego Police Department said his Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force takes tips from anyone, but that information must be confirmed by law enforcement. Evidence provided by groups such as Perverted Justice is almost useless, he said. "It's actually more work for us than if we find the leads ourselves because we have to go back and redo everything they did to confirm what they did."

Jones said investigating crimes that originate online is a tricky matter for police, who sometimes haven't been schooled on how to investigate them. "It's a tough issue to do an investigation correctly so you maintain the scene of evidence and the integrity of the communications you're looking at."

For law enforcement, clearing someone of being suspected of such a crime is just as important as getting a conviction because the tag of child molester is not easy to shake, according to Jones. "To say that we're extremely careful before we hang that kind of a label on somebody is a vast understatement."

Is It Entrapment?
Although Perverted Justice said it never initiates conversations in private IM chat rooms, some conversations could be construed as crossing the line in terms of enticement, but it's clearly not illegal.

"It's sleazy," said C
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor