Cybersleuth Hunts Pedophiles

Bush Schieffer
Off line, James McLaughlin is a policeman, a husband, and a father. Online, he is a 15-year-old boy looking for sex with men.

Detective McLaughlin's job involves standard police work, with one exception: He hunts pedophiles via the Internet. And he's good at it.

Fewer than 50 law enforcement officers in the country track pedophiles full time by computer. But even as a part-time cybersleuth, his doggedness has led to 75 arrests since 1996, some visitors from as far away as Norway who troll the Internet trading child pornography or looking for sex with children.

His day begins with deception. Within seconds of logging on to an Internet chat forum and posing as a teen-age boy, McLaughlin, 41, is hit on.

A picture of a naked boy appears on McLaughlin's screen at the Keene police station. The caption says the boy is 12 years old.

It is followed by a second, equally graphic, photo of another boy, this one posing suggestively while pulling a shirt over his head.

A third image appears, of a fully-clothed man in his 30s, supposedly the sender.

"It's probably really him," McLaughlin says. "They're that stupid."

Stupid or not, they know he's out there. McLaughlin has a global reputation for taking down pedophiles. Since posing as a teen-ager in Internet chats, McLaughlin has gotten an eyeful.

This technology offers good hunting ground for pedophiles who use the anonymity of the Internet to woo children, elicit their trust, and ultimately arrange a meeting.

Many pedophiles brag in chat groups about sexual conquests, even trading pictures of victims. The information can later be used against them, McLaughlin says.

McLaughlin began focusing on Internet crimes about 18 months ago, when a Keene couple claimed that a woman was using email to seduce their teen-age son.

McLaughlin then became aware of an article published by the North American Man/Boy Love Association, an organization based in New York which advocates sex between men and boys, that gave instructions for using the Internet to find young partners.

One problem with fighting Internet sex crimes is the lack of a concerned national effort, McLaughlin says.

The task of enforcing child sex and pornography laws can fall on any number of federal, state, and local agencies, including the FBI and U.S. Customs. And since few national statistics have been compiled, it is difficult to determine the scope of the problem.

However, this could change as the FBI expands Innocent Images, a division charged with tracking the exploitation of children over the Internet. Since 1995, Innocent Images has made 161 arrests.

An accurate profile of Internet pedophiles remains elusive, McLaughlin says, as he does research on differences between Internet and traditional tactics of exploitation.

Ten percent of McLaughlin's arrests involve suspects with prior convictions for molestation or child pornography. Ffty percent had ready access to children.

Part of the problem is the sheer number of children using computers, and they often are more computer literate than their parents. So, McLaughlin says, being aware of technology and of how children are using the Internet is the best way for parents to ensure safe surfing.

Written by J.M. Hirsch