STERLING, VA. — Scottie has gone to a site on the Web where gay teens ex-change electronic messages. He has identified himself as a 14-year-old. Within minutes, a middle-aged man from Indiana engages him in a private conversation. Then, he suggests they act out a "fantasy" where he kidnaps the boy. The conversation soon turns to hard-core pornography.
But the online teen's name is not Scottie, and he's not 14. His real name is Claude Davenport and he's a member of the US Customs Cybersmuggling Center here. As a senior special agent, he's prowling the Internet looking for rings that are trading child-porn images or sexual predators who are trying to set up meetings with underage kids.
Working out of a nondescript office building near Dulles airport in Virginia, the Customs agents, with photos of their own children on their desks, spend their time surfing through the smut on the Internet. They are members of an elite new vice squad set up to eliminate a seedy underground industry that can enter any home with a computer and a modem.
"Driving every agent is the fear that a child is being molested right now," says Gene Weinschenk, director of the Cybersmuggling Center.
For Mr. Davenport and colleagues, there's no shortage of potential targets. After just about disappearing from magazines and low-budget films during the 1980s because of strict enforcement of tough laws, child pornography is soaring again - on the Internet.
This time, though, child pornography has proven harder to target. The Internet affords offenders privacy as well as anonymity, and new laws and legal challenges have been unable to rein in the exploding industry. To many, this new breed of investigators at a variety of federal agencies - searching ".coms" instead of street corners - is the key to making society safer for children.
What the investigators are finding can be disturbing in the extreme. This September, agents cracked their biggest ring: a pedophile group that called itself w0nderland. The Customs sleuths found out about the group after cracking a child-porn ring called the Orchid Club, which molested children in front of cameras hooked up to their computers. Two members of the Orchid Club were also members of w0nderland.
What the authorities found was a global organization that used KGB encryption technology to try to avoid detection. It required members to have a minimum of 10,000 pictures. However, investigators found many of the members had 80,000 images in their computers. "You had to have something to contribute to the group to get in," says Tom Burrows, deputy chief of the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section at the US Department of Justice (DOJ).
So far, Customs has arrested 18 people, of which four have committed suicide. The suicides are not unusual. "You see your whole world shatter - it hits you right between the eyes," says Mr. Weinschenk.
New child-porn arrests are taking place weekly. This week, New Zealand authorities reported that they broke up a child-porn ring that stretched to Britain and Northern Ireland.
Late last month, the Cook County sheriff's office in Illinois arrested a US Senate computer-systems manager, who had sent pornographic pictures to a police detective posing as a 15-year-old girl. The FBI, which tries to catch predators who make dates with minors, is investigating the case.
The Department of Justice, which had about 100 prosecutions per year in the early 1990s, now is averaging more than 300 per year. These numbers are likely to increase because the law-enforcement agencies that deal with these cases are growing quickly.
One indication of the potential: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that since March calls about child pornography on its "tipline" are up to about 273 calls per month compared with 15 per month last year.
Last year, Congress gave the FBI $10 million, which the agency used to double the staff of Innocent Images, its undercover operation. The FBI now has about 157 agents, plus more support staff, surfing the Internet.
"We've got a lot of people tied up in this," says Pete Gulotta, a special agent and spokesman in the Baltimore office.
The US Customs Service, which also pursues the Internet cases, is in the process of doubling its cyberstaff. And the DOJ, using a new grant from Congress, recently gave $2.4 million to 10 police departments to crack down on the crime. Next year, the number of task forces will almost double.
Congress takes up the cause
Congress has become more interested in the issue, thanks to Texas Rep. Nick Lampson (D), founder of the bipartisan Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus, now with almost 100 members.
Representative Lampson became involved after a young girl in his district disappeared and then was found murdered. "I saw the connection went way beyond abductions to exploitation and from exploitation to child pornography," he says.
Law-enforcement agencies are particularly concerned about the transmission of porn to minors. The transmissions are often preludes to assaults, says Reuben Rodriguez of the National Center for Missing or Exploited Children, based in Arlington, Va. "They send a photo of a child touched by an adult but smiling - it gives the idea that this is not bad," he says.
With enormous money to be made in the illegal business, Customs officials expect to see commercial networks grow quickly.
There are already several Dutch Web sites that provide "child erotica" - something that is barely legal in the United States.
Last November, a Swiss couple arrived in the United States expecting to sign up distributors for their CD-ROM of child pornography. Their potential distributors turned out to be Customs agents. The couple had equipment that could turn out $20,000 worth of CDs per day.
"It's going to rapidly explode as a cottage industry," says Weinschenk. Customs is involved because much of the smut comes from overseas. However, the law now allows Customs to pursue a case even if any of the computer parts are made abroad.
Despite the law changes, sometimes it takes a long time for the police to build a case. Other times, the pedophiles are so eager to trade images, they send them even if they think the recipient is a policeman. "We've had people say, 'I know you're a cop,' and they sent the images anyway," says Weinschenk, who says the porn addiction is one of the strongest in the world. (The repeat-offender rate for child porn is about 90 percent.)
At times, the federal agents go online and act as if they are looking at pornographic images they are trading. (It's illegal for any law-enforcement official to actually send child porn.) "It drives the pedophiles crazy, thinking you have something they don't have, it drives them to the edge," he says.
Investigators are finding that using police techniques helps to solve some of the cases. For example, Davenport was working the Net and kept seeing pictures of two young boys. As he looked at the pictures, he realized there was a jacket in the background. When he enhanced the photo, he saw there was a logo for a town name on the clothing. He eventually traced the photos to a small town in Texas. The police were able to arrest the boys' uncle on child molestation and Internet pornography charges. "If I can identify a kid who's been molested, we pursue it aggressively."
The idea that they are helping children keeps the agents going. However, the business is also troubling. After they broke up the w0nderland group, they found video tapes of a young girl being repeatedly abused by two of her relatives. Says Weinschenk, "I didn't sleep for three days after that."