A controversial Web site is raising questions about where the line between justice and vigilantism is drawn.
The people who run Perverted-Justice.com say their goal is to "out" child predators whose anonymity allows them to lurk in the shadows of the Internet. But critics say the group -- whose members insist on anonymity themselves -- is nothing more than an Internet lynch mob that operates in the same kinds of shadows they claim to illuminate.
Members of the group pose as teenage boys and girls in general-interest chat rooms and wait for adult chatters to engage them in conversation. If the conversation heads in a sexual direction, the Perverted-Justice team kicks into action to snare what they think is a would-be pedophile. (The site says its volunteers do not operate in adult-themed chat rooms, which are designed for sexual chat and are generally restricted to those over 18.)
The first step is to get the chatter to send a photograph and divulge his name and telephone number, to establish his real-life identity. The volunteers say the chatters who approach them are almost always men.
Next, a "phone verifier" with what the site claims is an "underage-sounding" voice calls the subject by phone and has a brief conversation to verify the number's accuracy.
Then Perverted-Justice's information machine goes to work. Using the chatter's name and phone number, the site's volunteers scour the Internet, tracking down every bit of personal information they can find on the individual. Then they post the information on the site.
Within days or even hours of the chat, the target finds himself inundated with instant messages and phone calls from members of the site. In many cases his family, friends, neighbors, employer and others also get calls to let them know what the site's members believe he has done.
The group's founder, who goes by the pseudonym Xavier Von Erck, says people need to know about would-be child molesters in their family and community -- regardless of any embarrassment the target may suffer.
"These people need to be watched," Von Erck said in a telephone interview with ABCNEWS.com. "Even if we can't watch them, we try to make sure everyone who's around them knows what they did so that those people can watch them."
But critics argue that embarrassing alleged would-be child molesters doesn't do anything to deal with the problem.
"I think that, at the very least it's a gross invasion of privacy and I really don't believe that it does any good," said Julie Posey, an internationally recognized cybercrime fighter.
Posey, whose life and work were made famous when she became the subject of a TV movie for the Lifetime channel, believes the site's tactics only make online predators savvier.
"What it does is embarrass them for the moment," she said, "but then they'll go and get a different screen name and know to check things out a little more thoroughly next time.
"I personally believe it's a bunch of vigilantes," said Posey.
Von Erck dismisses any accusations of vigilantism, claiming that Perverted-Justice's goal is to help fill the gaps left open by undermanned and under-budgeted law enforcement. The Web site says it does not support violence against or harassment of its targets.
"A vigilante in my mind conjures up images of someone obstructing the law, where we want to be a plug-in for the law," said Von Erck. "I prefer the term 'watchdog group.'"