Saturday, January 22, 2005
Online group involved in man's arrest
A member of Perverted Justice told Roanoke police of George A. Porter. Does this concern you?
A Hopewell man who was arrested last week in Roanoke probably suspects now that it was a cop, not a cute 13-year-old girl, whom officials say he propositioned online.
He would only be partly correct.
Before Roanoke police ever became involved in the case, 46-year-old George A. Porter became yet another target of Perverted Justice, a group of activists all over the country whose Web site boasts that it is "exposing wannabe perverts on the 'net."
Perverted Justice has been lauded for its efforts and was featured on "Dateline NBC" in September 2004. But some government officials and other advocacy groups have serious concerns about the group, worrying that it hinders official investigations and violates civil rights.
"On the one hand, we applaud their motivation to rid the Internet of predators, but there's a better way to go about it. They've essentially gone too far," said Brad Russ, director of training for the national government-funded Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
PeeJ, as the group calls itself, was created 2 1/2 years ago, said its 25-year-old co-founder, Xavier Von Erck, in a telephone interview and an e-mail. Von Erck, who lives in Portland, Ore., goes by a pseudonym and declined to provide his legal name, saying he fears threats. His founding partner is no longer involved in the group.
Von Erck said he got the idea for PeeJ as he chatted on the Internet and witnessed adult males vying for the attention of underage girls in chat rooms. He says his group has 31 trained contributors who pose as girls with screen names like "sara_so_bored," waiting in chat rooms for an adult male to proposition them.
According to search warrants in Roanoke Circuit Court, that's what happened last year, leading a Tobi Steinmetz of Perverted Justice to contact Roanoke police. Von Erck said Steinmetz used her real name, but he did not provide her location. Detectives Shane Fletcher and David Lucas launched their own investigation based on Steinmetz' tip.
Search warrants indicate that a man with the screen name "trianglelover" described sexual acts, exposed himself and masturbated on a Web cam while conversing with police. Porter was arrested Jan. 15 after police say he arranged a meeting with the "girl" in Roanoke.
Von Erck said that when a contributor makes a "bust," as he calls it, it is up to that contributor to decide whether to contact police in the suspect's area.
"Contributors always do if the person is older, in a sensitive profession where kids are involved, has alluded to previous sex-related crimes, or god forbid, sent child pornography," Von Erck wrote in an e-mail.
Von Erck claims this has led to 30 arrests and six convictions since the group began working with police in 2004. He says that up to 75 percent of police contacts by PeeJ are well-received.
"There are some [police], though, that are behind the times," he said, later adding, "Sometimes you run into police who are just less than technologically savvy."
After a bust, but sometimes without an arrest or conviction, the chat content is posted on the Web site, including the suspect's name, phone number and any other personal information he provided. From there, "follow-up forums" allow PeeJ members to seek additional information about the suspect.
The site states that in the forums, "individuals work off the true information given in the logs posted on the site to find out everything about these people. Some of them even choose themselves to go so far as to contact friends, family, dogs, cats, priests, employers, robots, aliens, neighbors, about what the individual did online. The ability of the Followup Forumites can be awe-inspiring sometimes."
But PeeJ's actions are not condoned by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the leading child safety advocacy group in the nation.
"It's really not the safest, most effective way to combat this problem. It really needs to be left up to law enforcement," said Tina Schwartz, director of communication for NCMEC. "From what I've seen in some of these other cases with Perverted Justice, they embarrass the people, but I don't know that complete justice is ever served."
Police, too, have concerns about the group. Bedford County sheriff's Capt. Rick Wiita with the cybercrime task force Operation Blue Ridge Thunder says it is dangerous to tip off a suspect before police become involved.
"When that happens, then everything shuts down," he said.
Lucas and Wiita said citizen tips can be invaluable and must always be checked out by police, but they don't condone groups such as PeeJ.
"I wouldn't encourage it," Lucas said. "If you aren't trained, you might corrupt a potential case."
Roanoke County police Lt. Chuck Mason said police abide by higher investigative standards and are bound by constitutional laws against entrapment.
Police "can't put an idea into someone's mind who showed no predisposition to it whatsoever that you want to play sex games with them or sell dope to them or something like that and then turn around and pop them for it," Mason said.
Von Erck said his group cannot be held responsible for entrapping potential molesters.
"That doesn't apply to us," he said. "Entrapment is a legal term where law enforcement goes and solicits someone to commit a crime. We go into rooms and sit there. We don't message people first."
Canadian Scott Morrow, 43, believes that PeeJ is not interested in working with law enforcement, but in experiencing a power trip through cyber-vigilantism. He worries, too, that men are cajoled into a fantasy Internet conversation and are sometimes wrongly accused.
Morrow, a husband and father of three, founded the Web-based group Corrupted Justice, which works to educate people that PeeJ is not everything that it claims to be. He said he stumbled across PeeJ's site and was initially impressed.
"The turning point for me personally was when they busted a 19-year-old kid for chatting with a 15-year-old and they ruined him," he said.
Morrow says that PeeJ's members use the follow-up forum to harass people by contacting anyone in their life, including their employer, friends and neighbors.
Von Erck said his site condemns harassment, and if a person asks not to be messaged or phoned again, they do not. But Morrow believes PeeJ has so many members that if each one contacts a person once, the target can still receive hundreds of calls.
Von Erck himself said he's heard of men receiving hundreds of calls.
Morrow also said Perverted Justice never started contacting police until it had hundreds of "busts" under its belt, and of the 595 busts that it now claims on the site, 30 arrests and six convictions are a tiny percentage.
Said Morrow, "If you want to pretend to be a little girl on the Internet, if you get off to chat with them [adult males], that's fine. But if you bust them, you stop right there and if the police decide not to take it [the case], you drop it. You leave it alone."
Morrow said if PeeJ operated the way he described above, "our site would disappear."
Schwartz, with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said there are 40 cybercrime task forces working across the country to prevent crimes against children, more than ever before. And NCMEC's Cyber Tipline is the federally mandated clearinghouse for such tips.
Wiita, Lucas and Russ agree that cases of Internet crime should be left to NCMEC and law enforcement, and citizens who want to be involved should spend their energy educating society.
"Educating parents and children about the dangers would be a far better effort," Lucas said.