Correction to This Article
A July 31 Business article misidentified the company hired to look for online predators on the social networking site MySpace. It is Sentinel Tech Holdings, not Security Tech.

A Multi-Front Battle Against Web Predators

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper wants to require parental permission for children to join social networking sites.
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper wants to require parental permission for children to join social networking sites. (Chuck Burton - AP)
By Sam Diaz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The tattoo was the giveaway.

The registered sex offender who had been lurking around social networking Web sites offered few details about himself and posted no pictures to his online profiles, a method of maintaining anonymity.

But he had online friends who liked to post pictures. And when the tattoo on a man in one of those pictures matched the sex offender's tattoo in a criminal database, the last piece of the puzzle fell into place for John Cardillo, the former New York cop whose company is working with the social networking site MySpace to weed out predators.

"Criminals are impulsive; predators are impulsive," said Cardillo, chief executive of Security Tech. "They trip up more than they think they do, if you know what to look for. And we do."

Last week, 29,000 registered sex offenders were identified and removed from MySpace. And this week, the Connecticut attorney general said he was looking into a few cases of convicted sex offenders setting up profiles on Facebook, another popular site. Those on the front lines of the fight against predators on the Web, who use these sites to find young people and lure them to meet, say the battle is complex and will take a combination of education, high-tech security, old-fashioned investigative work, and cooperation among police, lawmakers, schools, parents, teens and the sites.

"This isn't going to be something that we just solve," said Chad Harms, an assistant professor at Iowa State University who serves on the advisory council for the Iowa Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. "This is a relatively new problem, and the light has only been shed on this issue in the last two to three years. In terms of combating this problem, this will be a continuous battle."

Facebook, like MySpace, has tools to allow users to customize privacy settings. Facebook officials could not be reached yesterday to comment on the investigation into sex offenders on its site or its efforts to police the site.

For months, Cardillo and his team have been comparing the various sex-offender databases with the MySpace membership list. But looking for matching names and addresses is only a small part of the work. He is also looking for missteps that might reveal more information about the criminals.

It's an approach, he said, that keeps offenders on the run and forces them to spend extra time to cover their online tracks. "For every minute that an offender has to spend covering his tracks, that's a minute that he can't spend stalking a child," Cardillo said.

Ten states, including Virginia, have passed laws that require sex offenders to also register their e-mail addresses. MySpace executives support that legislative effort but aren't willing to back a call for parental permission for minors to join social networking sites. They say such a law would create a false sense of security and could give predators an alternate way into the site.

"You can have an individual who is a predator who comes online in disguise, gets verified using false information and now is seen as an accepted individual," said Hemanshu Nigam, a former federal prosecutor who joined MySpace as its chief security officer last year. "Now, he is more dangerous than he ever was before."

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper disagrees. He views parental permission as part of the solution and is pushing for lawmakers in his state -- and others across the country -- to pass legislation that requires it.

"If we require parental permission, there will be significantly fewer children at risk because there will be fewer children on social networking sites," he said. "We believe this law will give parents another tool to protect their kids. This helps to give parents a choice."

Parents, Nigam said, need tools, as do teachers and police officers. MySpace has created guidebooks for teachers, law enforcement officers and parents that highlight the site's safety features, such as the ability to mark a profile as private and out of reach to casual onlookers. The company also has established a law enforcement hotline, which is answered by real people around the clock.

Increasingly, it's the teens who are starting to protect themselves.

According to a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, about one-fourth of teenagers with online profiles post their full names on the Web. But only 11 percent make profiles with full names visible to the public eye. Most are marking their social networking profiles as private, accessible only to people they know.

Nigam said MySpace is also working on a pilot program, code-named Zephyr, that gives parents more tools to monitor usage, including a "lockdown" feature that would prevent teens from misrepresenting their ages and gives them the authority to have a profile deleted from the system.

"Parents are our first line of defense, and we want to empower them," Nigam said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company