At the FBI's headquarters for combatting child exploitation on the Internet, special agent Linda Hooper shows visitors a cartoon taped on the wall.
In it, one dog clicking away at a computer says to another dog: "I love the Internet - nobody knows you're a dog."
The anonymity afforded by the Internet is no joke, though, when it comes to protecting children, Ms. Hooper says.
Sexual predators' ability to disguise themselves online "as anyone they want to be" is one of the main reasons youths who log on risk becoming victims, Hooper and FBI Director Louis Freeh told a Senate hearing Tuesday on Internet child exploitation and pornography. The masquerading by child pornographers and pedophiles is also a huge obstacle for FBI detectives trying to track the criminals down, Mr. Freeh said.
Cases involving child pornography and youths lured from the Internet into encounters with pedophiles are widespread and growing at a time when the number of children surfing the Web is rising dramatically. According to one report, more than 45 million US children will be online by the year 2002.
But recent innovations are expected to help parents and law enforcement officials keep children safe.
Educating parents and youths about the hidden dangers is one of the key strategies for prevention, experts say.
Parents, as the frontline defense, must understand that allowing their 13-year-old to cruise the Internet unsupervised is a little like letting her wander unescorted in a big city, Hooper says. Parents should closely monitor the child's Internet exploration, placing the computer in a high traffic area.
Youths often "view cyberspace as a variation on their computer or video games," and are not on guard against harmful online relationships, says Ernest Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in Arlington, Va.
"Too often, unsuspecting children believe they are talking to a peer with similar interests and hobbies, when, in fact, they are being recruited by a sexual predator," said Freeh. Teenage girls are the most vulnerable, statistics show.
For example, when undercover agents posing as teenage girls enter on-line chat rooms, "the screen literally lights up with [improper] questions and solicitations" from adults, says Hooper.
Children should never give out information such as a name or address on the Internet or arrange to meet anyone they meet online, experts say.
Several new initiatives are underway to make parents and children more aware of the risks - and enlist them in combatting the problem.
-The FBI this month will issue a pamphlet of safety tips for parents and wants manufacturers of Internet software to include it with their products.
-The NCMEC is distributing a new publication for teenagers, entitled "Teen Safety on the Information Highway." The NCMEC also seeks to provide mouse pads with safety tips.
-This week, NCMEC set up a CyberTipline (www.missingkids.com/cybertip) and urged the public to report any suspicious or illicit activity involving children. Staff will field leads and forward them to law enforcement agencies.
On the law enforcement front, the FBI is using $10 million added to its budget by Congress last year for a new squad of agents for its nationwide investigation of online child exploitation.
In turn, $2.4 million will go to train state and local law enforcement officials and set up local "cyber police" squads to patrol the information superhighway by using sting operations.
Freeh also outlined efforts to boost the FBI's ability to gather forensic evidence, obtain critical records on subscriber information and screen names from Internet service providers, and break encrypted messages used by child pornographers.
Online child pornographers and pedophiles "are among the most sophisticated computer users the FBI is encountering," Freeh said.