WASHINGTON - In early February, police say, a man here ended three months of increasingly suggestive online chat with a 13-year-old boy in California and flew across the country to arrange a sexual encounter with the child.
But when he arrived at a Huntington Beach restaurant for a face-to-face meeting with the boy, he was instead arrested by local vice officers.
That reckoning is clearly an exception in the freewheeling world of cyber-chat, where growing numbers of young Americans are spending hours sitting at keyboards talking intimately with strangers.
Police efforts to rein in online sexual predators face daunting legal, technical and financial challenges. Pursuing them is difficult, and some critics wonder just how serious the problem is.
To be arrested, pedophiles must transmit obscene images of provable minors or step out from behind their keyboards and solicit sex from a child in person.
"It takes about 30 seconds to find a hard-core conversation or full-color image and six months to build a case," said Sgt. Nick Battaglia of the San Jose (California) Police Department. "And then you can find out the guy you've been talking to all along lives in Australia."
If the predators are elusive, their prey is right at home.
Nearly six million kids under 18 regularly use the Internet, up from 1.1 million in 1995, a recent study estimates, and chat rooms are their favorite hangouts.
"Children love e-mail and they love chat," said Tom Miller, who conducted the study for the private Emerging Technology Research Group. "The curiosity is such a part of their natural profile."
One recent afternoon America Online, the most widely used online service, had more than 400 public chat lobbies open, each with more than 20 talkers; more than 50 "member rooms," many with sexually suggestive labels, filled to capacity; and an unknown number of private rooms.
Much of the explicit talk kids encounter in those rooms would shock or frighten parents. What's more shocking to some is that it's legal for an adult to write sexually explicit messages to children on line.
"It's kind of like a verbal orgy," said Nan McCarthy, who has been hanging around on line for 10 years researching her recently published novel "Chat." "These people in live chat rooms don't spend a lot of time on foreplay."
Only a few local police departments across the country routinely conduct online sex crime investigations, though some others have worked with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in an ongoing national effort.
A successful investigation requires large sums of money for high-tech computer equipment, many man hours and officers who can present themselves as children or pedophiles.
To pull off the recent sting in Huntington Beach, an officer had to strain his voice to sound like a 13-year-old and dupe the man into a meeting. The suspect, a 39-year-old employee of the National Academy of Sciences, will be arraigned March 13.
Most online pedophiles aren't caught. "We think of child victimization as this big monster hiding under the bridge, but it's not like that," said Peter Banks, training director for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "They charm kids. They're very good at what they do."
"The Internet has got to be the pedophile's dream come true. They can stalk children without any concern of being seen," said Cheryl Kean of Rochester, N.Y. She has not had contact with her 13-year-old daughter since she disappeared in December with a 22-year-old man she met on the Internet.
Just how much sex crime is actually perpetrated using the Internet is impossible to estimate.
The missing-children center says it has documented more than 50 cases of child abductions by predators who gained the trust of children with sweet talk on the Internet. Most of those children have since been located.
Ira Rosen, a child psychiatrist and physician from Dayton, Ohio, who has worked with abused children for decades, says the new technology clearly has made pedophilia easier. But he believes it's unlikely that the number of people with the problem are growing.
"It's certainly more visible," said Jonathan Freedman, a clinical sociologist in Atlanta and former education director for the Hutchings Psychiatric Center in Syracuse, N.Y.
In the unregulated chat section of the Internet called the Internet Relay Chat - or IRC - evidence of pedophilia is frighteningly visible. A large array of individuals is almost always there, trading electronic images of nude children - sometimes engaged in horrifying acts - across state and national borders.
In California last year, two men held a "pedo party" in which they photographed a 10-year-old girl in explicit poses and transmitted, in real time, the images to users in other states and Finland. They even took requests.
Authorities in Minnesota discovered last fall that two inmates compiled a list of addresses and physical descriptions for 2,000 children, and sent it beyond prison walls and over the Internet.
Inspired by the Internet-related abduction and murder of a Maryland child in 1993, the FBI launched an operation called Innocent Images in 1994. Agents in 52 of the bureau's 56 field offices have since prowled on line, using suggestive log-on decoys like "horny15bi" and racy conversations to identify potential pedophiles in 46 states.
Agents have had the most success thus far posing as adults looking for sexually explicit images of children. To date there have been 237 searches, 112 formal charges, 87 arrests and 78 convictions out of Innocent Images, according to Larry Foust, a spokesman in the FBI Baltimore field office. Agents in a branch of that office run the FBI's Internet sex sting operation.
Kimberly Kellogg, a criminal defense attorney in Kansas City, Kan., handles about 20 pedophilia cases a year and says online law enforcement techniques may be entrapment.
"It may not be your true pedophile but someone who is just curious," she said. "If the FBI is setting this up, I would think there is an excellent chance of proving entrapment."
Lt. Dan Johnson, a vice squad officer in Huntington Beach, disagrees.
"In order to entrap someone you have to put the idea in their head and make it so attractive that a normally law-abiding citizen would want to do it," Johnson said. "How do you make it attractive to have sex with a 13-year old?"
Even the most ardent defenders of free speech on the Internet stop short of condoning child exploitation, but are concerned the search for pedophiles could eventually lead police to overstep constitutional boundaries.
"For the FBI to go in and entice people, masquerading in this game playing, this is likely to extend into other areas. I could see it very easily with the militia movement," said David Sobel, legal counsel for the Electronic Privacy and Information Center. "I think it's a strange way to use limited law enforcement resources."
Even some officers who conduct online investigations question the need for such operations. Detective Tom Polhemus of the Fairfax County Police Department in Northern Virginia said Internet investigations put the emphasis in the wrong place.
"That's not how kids are being abused," said Polhemus, who handles child exploitation cases. "They're being abused by your best friend, your friendly neighbor, your husband. If the Internet is all we worried about, we'd be sitting here all day eating doughnuts."
Just what can or should be done to make the Internet less menacing to children remains a divisive question.
Last year Congress made it illegal to transmit any sort of sexually explicit message to children.
Critics said the new law violated basic principles of free speech and was so vague that it might shut down sites for Playboy magazine and Planned Parenthood. Last June, a federal appellate court in Philadelphia agreed, striking down the measure on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment right to free speech. The Supreme Court will decide the case this spring.
Meanwhile, bills have been introduced in both houses of Congress that would require Internet service providers to offer software that could be used to block sexual and violent images.
But Internet experts say such efforts are futile because of the technology's basically open structure.
Complicating the problem is the varied nature of the online world. The largest numbers of online users connect through structured commercial sites like America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy.
America Online offers parental controls to determine which sites, newsgroups and chat rooms their children can use, and offers guidelines for all users on keeping safe online.
But it also is clear that it is easy and common for libidinous adults to meet children in these services, despite such safeguards.
"Parents can control everything from web access to newsgroups to e-mail. Chat rooms generally have a guide in them and guides can be paged 24 hours a day," said Andrew Graziani, a spokesperson for America Online. "But we're not monitoring private messages."
The Internet and the Internet Relay Chat are more difficult to police. There is no normal commerce on the IRC and thus no providers to share the burden of protecting children. And dozens of sites selling access to sexual images and chat on the Internet appear and disappear with startling speed.
Software with names like Net Nanny and Cybersitter designed to screen kids from such sites is increasingly popular. Since January 1995, Surfwatch has sold three million copies of a program that blocks access to 25,000 adult sites and can be tailored by parents.
"It's a nice alternative. There's a value for law enforcement, but we favor a more preventative approach," said Jay Friedland, co-founder of Surfwatch.
But Friedland also points out that parents can't rely solely on software, because kids are often more savvy then their parents about computers and can find a way around protective programs.