Mob justice

Watch what you say to that 13-year-old in a chat room. It could be a vigilante looking to do some tar-and-feathering.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Published September 15, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

"Satine," an 18-year-old college sophomore who lives in Oregon, pretends to be a 13- to 15-year-old girl in Yahoo's regional chat rooms.

Her modus operandi: "I make up an alias on Yahoo chat. I find a picture from somewhere, usually a porn site. But I don't use a nude one. I say: 'Hi, my name is blah blah.' Then, the flood of instant messages come in. I almost always get a response."

Many of her conversations with random guys in the chat room turn raunchy, ranging from threesomes to oral sex: "One of them liked to be a submissive, and he wanted a 14-year-old girl to be his dominatrix," says a disgusted Satine, who says that she when she was actually 13 years old, an older friend molested her.

In the chats, Satine encourages her targets to try to arrange to meet her in person for sex; she told one 20-year-old who thought she was 15 that she wanted to lose her virginity, and gushed to a 21-year-old that she was looking for "some fun" -- "the kind that involves the naughty parts of my body."

sweet_as_kandy_15 (11:51:10 PM): so, what would you do with my naughty parts?
eclipse20202000 (11:51:36 PM): i would lick and rubb and massage
sweet_as_kandy_15 (11:51:43 PM): ooh
sweet_as_kandy_15 (11:51:51 PM): wanna meet sometime?
sweet_as_kandy_15 (11:52:02 PM): lol
eclipse20202000 (11:52:11 PM): we would have to see

Eclipse20202000 and other dupes like him soon discover that they haven't actually encountered a willing underage girl within driving distance eager to get together for "some fun." Instead, they've been stung by Perverted Justice, a vigilante force that targets "wannabe pedophiles" in chat rooms.

"If they actually try to make plans to meet and have sex, then you expose them on the site," says Satine. Any identifying info the chatter has handed over in the course of messaging with Satine, as well as whatever he posted about himself publicly in his profile, will soon appear on the Perverted Justice Web site, including his first name, home, work or cellphone number, hometown, instant-message handle, e-mail address, photo and the lurid chat transcripts. (The site does not include last names, because its operators assume that a guy planning to meet an underage girl for sex would not be likely to give his real one.)

All that personal data becomes ammunition for vengeful prank calls from the Web site's visitors. "If you get caught by Perverted Justice trying to sexually hook up with a minor, your life is going to become a nightmare," says Laura, aka "Spank This," a 36-year-old Kansas City, Mo., event planner and mother, who declined to give her last name. "You might as well be registered as a sex offender for all the attention that you're going to get."

But Laura, who chats posing as a girl between the ages of 10 and 13, admits that the men who take her bait haven't committed any crime: "It's a fine line. These guys are showing their intentions, they're taking overt steps for hooking up with a child, but technically they haven't done it, so from a law-enforcement point of view there is nothing to arrest yet."

Although no crime has actually been committed, the Perverted Justice "agents" see themselves as a kind of chat room brother's keeper, an in-your-face virtual neighborhood watch. "Obviously, they're not actual pedophiles," says Satine, who since joining the effort in August 2002 as an unpaid volunteer has made more than 20 such "busts." "They are just perverts that want to have a good time with an underage girl. We publicly humiliate them to get them to stop being perverted with these children."

There's no arrest, no charge, no reading of Miranda rights, no trial by jury for the guys whose mugs appear on the Perverted Justice site. The "charge" is simply "wannabe pedophile." After volunteers from the site call to confirm their phone numbers, they are literally tried in the Internet court of public opinion; visitors to the Web site can read transcripts of the chats, and vote on a "Slimyness [sic] Scale" of 1 to 5, with 1 meaning "not really slimy" and 5 indicating "oozing, dripping with slimyness!" The 10 highest scorers have the dubious honor of appearing as featured links on the Perverted Justice home page.

Since launching in July 2002, the site has logged more than 290 such busts, according to co-founder "Xavier Von Erck," who describes himself as a 24-year-old childless libertarian and atheist who lives in Portland, Ore. (One of the ironies inherent in the Perverted Justice site is that none of the vigilantes agreed to reveal their real names, fearing retribution from their victims.)

No one is stepping up to the plate to defend chat room participants who engage in sexually flirtatious talk with 13-year-old girls. But according to advocates for children, Perverted Justice's public shaming of men who think that they're chatting with underage girls may be hindering, not helping, the fight against genuine online predators.

"These aren't police officers, and they're not actually collecting any information that's going to be accepted in court. I think that the most important thing is to catch these people and put them away," says Katya Gifford, program manager for the Internet safety group CyberAngels. "I understand the motive. I understand that there is no way law enforcement can catch all these people, the least we can do is embarrass them online, but it's sort of a waste of time. The one thing it does do is tip them off, so they're more careful next time."

Laura, the Kansas City event planner, answers that objection by arguing that Perverted Justice serves as a community patrol for chat rooms: "I think of us as a big spotlight, and if we shine it around these regional chat rooms the cockroaches will run. We're patrolling the neighborhood park. We're saying, 'You're not going to do it right in our neighborhood, right in our park, right out in the open.'"

But when you hide behind the anonymity of the Net to publicly smear men who themselves have been using the cloak of the Net to engage in raunchy chat with people who they think are underage girls, who exactly is on the wrong side of the law?

"The big problem with doing that is that it's not illegal to have conversation with kids. These guys have not committed a crime. They [Perverted Justice] can get themselves sued for accusing somebody," says Julie Posey of, a 39-year-old mother in Wichita, Kan., who says she has assisted law enforcement with more than 60 arrests of alleged pedophiles, men she met on the Internet by posing as an underage girl, and who then attempted to meet her in person. "The crime doesn't occur until they attempt to meet the kid or they actually meet the kid with the intent to have sex. What they say on the Internet and what they say on the phone just isn't enough."

Xavier Von Erck says that Perverted Justice gets around this by only accusing men of being "wannabe pedophiles." By the rules and standards of Perverted Justice, that's crime enough to be outed.

"The biggest reason that these guys do this online is that they feel that they're anonymous; and this just puts a spotlight on them," says "Frank Fencepost," a 29-year-old Vancouver, Wash., tattoo artist who is the other co-founder of the site. "This is no more anonymous than being at work or school or just walking down the street. You will be held accountable for what you do here."

But what about the moral ambiguity of posing as someone you're not to lure someone into committing what you see as a moral transgression?

Frank Fencepost says that after spending a lot of time in chat rooms and witnessing the barrage of advances that older men make at young girls, he just felt obligated to take action: "I couldn't just sit there and not do something about it, so I guess I just decided to be devious." He adds: "I think that being devious is a highly underrated skill in America."

The Perverted Justice site is quite purposely in-your-face, adopting the breathless "gotcha" tone of a cops-and-robbers reality TV show: "This wannabe pedo tried to solicit superstrawberryprincess, a 11-year-old girl ... or so they thought!" The chat transcripts are annotated with equally florid color-commentary. In one chat where a guy asked what he thought was an 11-year-old, "u like older guys," the Perverted Justice agents added this annotation: "(Not that the young, young YOUNG age slowed this fucker down or anything)."

On his profile, Frank Fencepost offers a list of what outraged readers of the site should not (wink), do with the phone numbers of the men who appear on the site: "Posting these numbers in Gay Phone Sex Chat:1 is a terrible, terrible thing. Don't do THAT ... please, don't do THAT. Do not offer these phone numbers to Jehovah's Witnesses, telling them that you need as many prayer meetings as you can get."

Many of the accused plead innocent when they find themselves on the site: "They'll claim all sorts of crazy things -- someone stole their IM name, the conversation is totally faked. 'That wasn't my phone number, that wasn't my picture,'" says Xavier Von Erck. After the fact, the site has pardoned at least one person it has accused, removing his information from the site, but they won't reveal the details of why or how for fear of tipping off others who might try the same tactics.

So far, no one who has appeared on the Perverted Justice site has actually tried to strike back at the anonymous posse behind the site: "They threaten to sue. They threaten violence," says Xavier Von Erck, but no suits have been filed, and no threats carried out.

Frank Fencepost says that lawsuits don't worry him: "I'm not so concerned about getting sued. Take everything I got. It ain't much. But I occasionally look over my shoulder. It wouldn't be that hard for somebody to find out where I am either. But what can I say? I live for excitement." And he's gotten used to the threats that pour in from the men who find themselves nailed on the site: "They're going to call the cops, they're going to tell their mommy on me, they're going to come where I am and beat me up, they're going to tell the playground teacher," he mocks.

Although the site has been involved in no arrests, it claims that it has had a measurable effect on some of the men implicated on it: One who was living with his parents was kicked out; another lost his job; three lost girlfriends.

And the vigilante activism has changed the tenor of at least the Portland regional chat room on Yahoo, where Perverted Justice commenced operations last year. Now, when an operative for the site checks into those rooms as a 13-year-old, there aren't many men who will take the bait. "The Portland rooms are pretty difficult to get a guy talking to you, but I went into Seattle chat last night as a 13-year-old, and in an hour and a half, I had 15 messages on my screen," says Frank Fencepost. The site, which currently has about a dozen regular "agents," is now branching out to different cities and systems, including AOL.

The Perverted Justice crew say that the results in Portland are their definition of victory: making men uncomfortable approaching girls who say they're underage in chat rooms. "We're trying to poison the well for these guys," says Laura, the Kansas City event planner. "If you go into any public chat, where little kids may be hanging out, and you work up a Chester the Molester, you may within the hour have your public information posted up, and everybody is going to know about it." But she's careful to add that not everyone she meets when posing as an adolescent girl is a "bad guy." "There are a great deal of guys who the minute I say I'm 11 years old, they say, 'OK, you're too young,' and I never hear from them again, God love them."

The agents of Perverted Justice follow certain rules, such as no going into adult chat rooms and no chatting up the guy first. But there's a great deal of variety in the characters they impersonate. Some pose as sexually provocative 15-year-olds; others play an innocent little 11-year-old. But either way, the P.J.ers, as they call themselves, argue that what these men are doing is just plain wrong. "If you have a 12-year-old making sexually provocative statements, that doesn't give you a green light to molest a child," says Laura. "I don't care if a 12-year-old is walking around naked with a sign that says 'Please molest me,' it's not right."

Stirring the chat muck to see if anyone wants to talk dirty to an 11-year-old is apparently a high-burnout hobby. "A lot of people come and do it for a month or two and they can't take it anymore," says Xavier von Erck. Gifford from CyberAngels says that she's frequently seen sites like Perverted Justice pop up and then disappear, perhaps for the same reason.

But Satine, who says she was sexually abused as a child, has had a different experience volunteering for the site. "It's almost like a form of therapy for me to know that I could be helping out somebody else." In her time on chat detail, she's talked to a man who gave his age as 52 years old who thought he was talking to a 14-year-old, and she viewed the webcam transmission of a masturbating man who presumably thought he was talking to a 13-year-old.

When notified about the chat sting that's going on via their service, a representative from Yahoo confined herself to the following boilerplate statement: "We are appalled that some individuals would abuse the Internet's tools and services to participate in illegal activities," says Mary Osako, director of communications for Yahoo. But she said she could not comment specifically on any of the chats posted on Perverted Justice, since she hasn't read them.

Osako says that chatters should report objectionable content to Yahoo at the e-mail address, where it will be reviewed within 24 hours, and that the company passes on relevant tips to the appropriate federal agencies, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Groups such as CyberAngels also recommend informing service providers and federal authorities of any misbehavior, in lieu of the vigilante justice of Perverted Justice.

But Perverted Justice cofounder Xavier von Erck, who says that he knows "tons" of females who have been sexually abused in real life, says that Perverted Justice's role is to educate the public about what's going on in these chat rooms, not just bust the men in them. "I think that there is a lot of value in excoriating these people publicly because not only does it create the chilling effect, getting these people out of the regional rooms, it [also] educates the average parent."

Educational or vengeful or both, after it was featured on the Web site Metafilter, the site inspired strong reactions from the posters. One person speculated that the site could be abused to seek revenge on a boss or a former lover. Another called it "Pedophiles for Dummies," a very useful instruction manual for guys who might actually want to meet children online without getting caught. A third said the whole endeavor made him want to pose as a 40-year-old pedophile online, and then when he got "busted" say he was just playing make-believe, too.

But the co-founders of the site, displaying an adolescent sense of glory, revel in the controversy.

"People either really, really love it or they hate us," boasts Frank Fencepost. "To the fight against online pedophilia, we are to that struggle what Malcolm X or the Black Panthers were to the civil rights struggle. Nobody can ignore us."

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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