Every day in some of the nation's safest neighborhoods child molesters and pedophiles are using the Internet to engage in intimate discussions with children, often with parents just a few feet away, according to law enforcement officials.
These predators use the anonymity of the Web to identify and target youngsters for sexual abuse and, sometimes, murder.
It is what Gene Weinschenk of the US Customs Service calls the dark side of the World Wide Web. And it is something, he says, that every parent or anyone concerned about the welfare of children must understand.
"This is good technology being put to an evil use," says Mr. Weinschenk, one of the world's top cyber cops who runs the Cyber Smuggling Center in Stirling, Va.
In addition to US Customs, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and many state and local police departments are undertaking active investigations to foil a thriving trade in child pornography over the internet and the use of online "chat rooms" to meet children and teens who might be lured into an illicit encounter.
Experts say pedophiles frequently pose as children on the Internet to strike up friendships with boys and girls. Eventually, they begin sending pornography to the targeted child and suggest a face-to-face meeting. By that time the person on the other end of the internet may seem more friend than stranger to the child.
Parents, too, may have a false sense of security unless they educate themselves to the potential dangers of unrestricted and unmonitored internet use by children and teens, experts say.
"We can invest our money in the most elaborate security system, but pedophiles can penetrate the the safest home just by getting on the Internet," says Larry Foust, an FBI agent who specializes in pedophile cases.
Awareness is the key to protecting children from Internet predators, experts say.
"When a child is on the street and a stranger approaches, the safeguards go up. But when they are on the Internet, the safeguards are not there because there is no perceived threat, so they tend to be more open," says Ruben Rodriguez of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Arlington, Va. "These predators, they know how to seduce and entice children. They groom these children to do what they want them to do through role playing and to eventually go meet them," he says.
Although the Internet has provided an opportunity for child molesters to anonymously stalk children, it has also provided law enforcement an unprecedented opportunity to identify and prosecute pedophiles.
Law-enforcement officials are using the pedophiles own tactics against them. "We are posing as children on the Internet and we are attempting to lure these pedophiles out from under their rocks," says Agent Foust.
NO one knows how many pedophiles and molesters are out there. But statistics and anecdotal evidence suggest the numbers are significant.
"It is a growing problem," says Mr. Rodriguez. He says pedophiles target several children at one time to increase their odds of finding a potential victim.
In the meantime, law enforcement is scrambling to catch up.
Since 1995, FBI cases have resulted in 272 convictions or guilty pleas in pedophile or child- pornography cases. The Customs Service is now making on average an arrest every other day.
Among recent cases:
* A man who sexually assaulted and murdered a six-year-old boy in the early 1980s was released from prison only to be arrested trying to buy child pornography from undercover Customs agents on the Internet.
* A New Mexico pediatrician who was designated as the child molestation physician for a native American tribe, traded child pornography with an undercover Customs agent, and expressed interest having sex with a five-to seven-year-old. He was arrested when he arrived in Spokane, Wash., for what he thought would be a sexual encounter with a child. At the time of his arrest, he had a camera capable of transferring photographs to the Net.
* The former chief of the child- abuse section of the New Orleans Police Department was arrested last month after trying to buy and sell child pornography.
* A Green Beret master sergeant was arrested last month after trading in child pornography from a government computer in a high-security military intelligence office.
The story on Page 4 in yesterday's Monitor misstated information presented at the annual meeting of The First Church of Christ, Scientist. The church's external debt is $1.3 million for capital leases - down from $2 million a year ago.