The ascent of the Internet as the supermarket of choice for deviants has spurred law enforcement authorities to step up their trolling of the darkest corners of the Web in an effort to lure sex offenders to their arrests.
Examples abound, some of outwardly decent people, indeed pillars of the community, who have sought to have sex with children through sites such as Facebook and MySpace.
Most worrying to law enforcement, however, is a small but apparently growing subset of these predators who are hooking up online with parents or guardians willing to prostitute their children, sometimes as young as infants.
These are the most dangerous predators going after the most vulnerable victims, and finding and prosecuting such cases provide the opportunity to take both the criminal parent and perpetrator off the streets, according to criminal justice experts who spoke to ABC News.
"We're posing as parents more than we have in the past," said Arnold Bell, chief of the FBI's Internet sex-crimes unit, Innocent Images. "The landscape changes all the time and we have to modify our behavior as predators modify theirs. When we go on posing as parents with kids for sale, we're contacted very quickly by pedophiles."
The vast majority of inappropriate sexual contact online involves adult men and children age 11-13, kids old enough to operate a computer and leave their homes on their own, but young enough to be manipulated by a grown-up, he said.
Pedophiles, however, are by definition attracted only to prepubescent children and by necessity often have to ingratiate themselves with children's parents to gain access to their victims, Bell said.
"Sometimes pedophiles feel the parents are consenting on behalf of their kids," Bell said. "They think it's OK because the parents are allowing it. It allows them to justify what they're doing in their own heads, but it's completely invalid in court. It's completely invalid in any sense."
Twice in recent weeks, police sting operations in which law enforcement officials portrayed themselves as parents looking to prostitute their children yielded arrests.
On Friday J.D. Roy Atchinson, an assistant U.S. attorney, who police say chatted with an undercover detective who he thought was the father of a 5-year-old girl, killed himself in the Michigan federal prison in which he was being held.
When police apprehended Atchison, 54, on Sept.16 at the Detroit airport, he was carrying a teddy bear and jar of pertroleum jelly.
On Sept. 29, in a separate case, Daniel Barron, 56, a producer at CBS Sports, was also arrested. Authorities say they posed as a father willing to let Barron have sex with his 11-year-old daughter in exchange for Miami Dolphins tickets. Barron has yet to enter a plea, according to court documents.
That both men were respected members of their communities and not "guys in trench coats," the FBI's Bell says, should indicate to parents that sex offenders can come from all walks of life.
"The Internet gives them the ability to communicate in a way they never could before. There is a sense of anonymity and security and a feeling — despite all the news — that no one is watching," he said.
Authorities Bust Parents
"Cases where parents are involved are much rarer than those in which predators are chatting with kids directly," said Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety, an Internet safety group.
"Though it is happening less frequently, the consequences are more severe. If parents are involved, there is almost a 100 percent chance that these kids are already being molested and will continue to be abused," she said.
In March 2006, the FBI arrested Kenda Henry of Dallas, whom police accused of using the Internet to prostitute her three young children to pedophiles from as far away as Great Britain. Henry was arrested when authorities from Canada, the United States and Interpol busted the world's largest child pornography ring.
Police say she was linked to Brian Tod Schellenberger, a North Carolina father accused of creating and circulating hundreds of pornographic images and raping a 3-month-old infant. Schellenberger was sentenced to 100 years in prison for posing a 6-year-old girl and infant boy in pornographic positions.
Two months before Henry and Schellenberger were arrested, a Canadian woman pleaded guilty to providing pornographic pictures of her 8-year-old son to her "master" in a chat room dedicated to bondage sex.
In 2005, Teri Anderson was profiled on "America's Most Wanted" and accused of creating pornographic images of her two young sons. Anderson, already serving a term at a Utah prison for production of child pornography, was identified by her mother and later pleaded guilty.
Points of Contact
Aside from parents prostituting their kids outright on the Internet, the Web creates other points of contact for predators to find parents with kids whom they can eventually abuse. Pedophiles will often use the net to begin dating unsuspecting single mothers, police say. Once they've established a relationship with the child's mother, they'll begin to abuse the kid.
"Other times parents will post innocent photos of their children on modeling sites. The parents are gradually induced to go further by pedophiles, putting their children in sexier bathing suits or negliges and exchanging gifts for access to the kids," said WireSafety's Aftab.
"It begins innocent enough, but doesn't end that way," she said.
Statistics Hard to Come By
Exact numbers of actual parents prostituting their children both in the real and virtual worlds are difficult to come by, academics and law enforcement authorities told ABC NEWS.
But in the FBI's fiscal year that ended in August, the government opened a total of 2,443 new investigations into child sex crimes on the Internet and achieved 1,015 convictions. In 2006, the FBI opened a total of 2,135 new investigations and won 1,013 convictions.
The bureau said it doesn't keep statistics of how many of those cases involved parents.
Children are more likely to end up as prostitutes in the real world than the virtual world, experts said. The Department of Health and Human Services puts the number of children at risk for sexual exploitation in the United States at around 400,000.
But according to Janice Wolak, a professor at the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, it's difficult to know how accurate that number is.
"It's really hard to get a solid number. We've tried to survey national law enforcement departments, but the number of arrests doesn't reflect the real number of kids prostituting. It is an incredibly elusive population."
Wolak estimated that a small population, less than 10 percent of all children working the streets as prostitutes, were being pimped out by their parents.
"In a typical scenario, a parent is already involved in drugs or prostitution in one way or another. Parents prostitute their kids for drugs or money," she said.
Just last week James Colliton, a former tax attorney at the prestigious firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore and father of five, pleaded guilty to statutory rape after having sex with two underage girls numerous times between 2000 and 2005, who had been prostituted by their mother.
The 38-year-old mother pleaded guilty in April 2006 to endangering the welfare of a child and admitted she was paid in moeny and gifts for allowing Colliton to have sex with her children.