boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
Today's Globe  |   Latest News:   Local   Nation   World   |  NECN   Education   Obituaries   Special sections  

Vigilante websites combat solicitation of minors for sex

The online conversation is direct: A 42-year-old man calling himself "Justinnbos" tells "Bladin Bost Boi" he will pay $125 for sex with the 14-year-old as the two exchange pictures, phone numbers, and hometowns.

Before it ends, the alleged 14-year-old reveals he is not a teenager, or even a law enforcement officer, but a self-described Internet vigilante sitting at a computer in Michigan trying to expose what he calls "wannabee pedophiles."

That's how an explicit online conversation allegedly between the vigilante and a civilian dispatcher for Boston police came to be posted on the Internet. When the vigilante notified Boston police, the dispatcher was placed on administrative leave this week and is now under investigation.

While online solicitation of minors for sex is a widespread problem that many law enforcement agencies are trying to combat, even the groups that monitor child sex crimes on the Internet say such vigilante sites are more trouble than help. Legal experts say however, that unless false information is posted or law enforcement agencies are engaged in entrapment, there is little legal ground to challenge the practice.

"They're really hard cases because posting information that's true on the Internet is just like if you put it on poster board on your front lawn," said Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, "and it only becomes non-protected speech when it's a threat or when it's not true."

A four-page online conversation that allegedly involved Dennis Isbart, 48, of Charlestown, was posted on the website of a group calling itself Perverted Justice, along with Justinbo's cell phone number, hometown, and picture. Justinbos is never identified on the website, but Boston police were later contacted by the Michigan man who identified Isbart after spending $85 for a reverse-search service that links cellphone numbers to their users, according to the webmaster of the site.

Boston police then placed Isbart on administrative leave from the dispatcher's job, said police spokeswoman Mariellen Burns, who declined to comment further.

Isbart could not be reached for comment and the cellphone number that was posted has been disconnected.

The Suffolk district attorney's office "encourages anyone who observes potentially illegal activity on the Internet to report it to us," said David Procopio, spokesman for District Attorney Daniel Conley, but does not enlist civilians to seek out offenders.

"The question becomes more complicated when that observer, even one with the best of intentions, takes the next step and sets up his own sting operation or tries to bust a suspect," Procopio said. "In all cases we need to investigate independently and develop our own corroborating evidence before we can file charges."

The vigilante site was created in July 2002 by a 24-year-old in Portland, Ore., who calls himself Xavier, and declined to give his full name citing past threats of violence against him, he said. The site has since spread nationwide, Xavier said, with at least six Massachusetts residents posting on it this week. When the site first started, it "had a chilling effect," Xavier said.

"It makes people paranoid" when anyone underage enters, he said. "That's all we wanted to do is get these people out of chat rooms where young kids go."

The participants offer the personal information on the site, Xavier said. "I don't think it's about us exposing them as opposed to them exposing themselves," he added. To make sure the information on the site is correct, Xavier said the website has several people who dial the posted phone numbers, disguising their voices to sound like young teens. The callers then try to confirm the on-line conversation. Photographs are harder to verify, Xavier said, "unless they're using a webcam."

Nothing in the website discourages readers from calling police to report potential suspects. The site allows viewers to look up the screen names of those caught trying to solicit sex and even allows viewers to see if the users are online.

Some experts said the 13 civilian "contributors" to the website may be doing more harm than good, according to groups that monitor child safety on the Internet. "What you end up with is cleverer predators because they've been tipped off," said Katya Gifford with the group CyberAngels, an offshoot of the Guardian Angels. "You cannot just break into your neighbors house because you suspect that they use drugs and collect evidence and hand it over to the police."

Gifford said such sites also allow any potential predators to erase hard drives or hide damaging evidence before police have been notified.

"We don't believe it helps deter those predators," said Kelly Burke, supervisor of the exploited child unit at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which operates a tip line (www.cybertipline.com) but does not condone investigations by citizens. "Mainly it moves the predators to different areas and pushes them to act smarter in concealing their identity."

But the vigilante group may not be liable as long as the information posted is correct, said Jonathan Zittrain, assistant professor of law at Harvard Law School and a director of its Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Otherwise, if they are posting true and legitimate online conversations involving adults soliciting alleged underage children for sex, Zittrain said "no immediate cause of action jumps to mind."

But "entrapment only really has meaning in the context of a criminal charge brought against somebody," Zittrain said. Entrapment laws are meant to check the excesses of government power. But if groups exposing people are doing so on their own and not as an arm of any governmental agency, he said, entrapment issues don't tend to apply.

Such sites, he said, are part of a transformation that the Internet is bringing about "that blurs the line between casual conversation and official statement. And at its extreme, it has everyone speaking like lawyers -- if they're smart."

Mac Daniel can be reached at mdaniel@globe.com.

SEARCH GLOBE ARCHIVES
 
Globe Archives Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months