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The Internet, like the telephone and automobile before it, has created new possibilities for crime. Some people wielding computers for criminal purposes are being combated by FBI agents working out of an office park here a few miles outside Washington's Beltway.

The FBI operation, named Innocent Images, targets cyberstalkers seeking sex with children, and traffickers in child pornography. As one agent here says, "Business is good -- unfortunately." Criminal sexual activity on the Internet is a growth industry.

In many homes, children are the most competent computer users. They are as comfortable on the Internet as their parents are on the telephone. On the Web, children can be pen pals with the entire world, instantly and at minimal cost. But the world contains many bad people. Parents should take seriously a cartoon that shows two dogs working on computers. One says to the other, "When you're online, no one knows you're a dog."

A child does not know if the person with whom he or she is chatting is another child or a much older person with sinister intentions. The typical person that the agents call a "traveler" -- someone who will cross state lines hoping to have a sexual encounter with a child -- is a white male age 25-45. He has above-average education -- often an advanced degree -- and above-average income, enabling him to travel. Many "travelers" are married.

But these cyberstalkers do not know if the person with whom they are chatting is really, as they think, a young boy or girl, or an FBI agent. Some "travelers" who thought they had arranged meetings with children have been unpleasantly surprised, arrested, tried and jailed.

Since the first arrest under Innocent Images in 1995, there have been 487 arrests of "travelers" and pornographers, and 409 convictions. Most of the 78 non-convictions are in cases still pending. The conviction rate is above 95 percent.

However, the FBI is distressed by light sentences from some judges, who justify their leniency by the fact that the offenders are socially upscale and first offenders. (Actually, probably not: How likely is it that they get caught the first time they become predators?) Lenient judges also call the crime "victimless," because it is an FBI agent, not a child, receiving the offender's attention.

Agents are trained to avoid entrapment, and predators usually initiate talk about sexual encounters. But children implicitly raise the subject by visiting such chat rooms. Most children recoil when sexual importunings become overt. ("When you come to meet me, make sure you're not wearing any underwear.") But some importunings, including gifts and sympathetic conversation about the problems of children, are cunning, subtle and effective.

Publicity about Innocent Images may deter some predators, but most are driven to risk-taking by obsessions. America Online and other service providers look for suspect chat rooms and close those they spot, but they exist in such rapidly changing profusion that there are always many menacing ones open.

Digital cameras, and the plunging price of computer storage capacity for downloaded photographs, have made this, so to speak, the golden age of child pornography. The fact that the mere possession of it is a crime does not deter people from finding, in the blizzard of Internet activities, like-minded people to whom they say things like, "I'm interested in pictures of boys 6 to 8 having sex with adults."

A booklet available from any FBI office, "A Parent's Guide to Internet Safety," lists signs that a child might be at risk online. These include the child being online for protracted periods, particularly at night.

Each of the FBI's 56 field offices has an officer trained to seek cyberstalkers and traffickers in child pornography. Ten offices have Innocent Images operations. Agents assigned to Innocent Images can spend as many as 10 hours a day online, monitoring the sexual sewer that is a significant part of the "information superhighway."

Washington Post Writers Group

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