Jan. 10, 2005-- -- 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.'"
Von Erck says he and the site's members conceal their real identities because they're afraid of retribution from the people they've targeted. ABCNEWS.com agreed to withhold his real name to protect his privacy.
Because Perverted-Justice volunteers work under condition of anonymity, critics say it's hard to know who to hold responsible when and if a mistake is made.
"There's no way to hold them accountable if they do go over the line," said Scott Morrow, media liaison for Corrupted-Justice.com, an anti-Perverted-Justice organization.
"When you're running an organization or running a group of people with the potential to do as much damage to people's lives as this group does," he said, "I think there also has to be some accountability."
In addition to publishing its targets' names on the Web site, Perverted-Justice publicizes its activity with what it calls "group media busts."
In these "busts," the site teams up with a local television station and lures chatters to a house with what the site's volunteers say is a promise of an underage sexual encounter. When and if the target arrives, he's met by a reporter with a television camera, and soon finds his face on the evening news.
Television stations participating in the stings have come under fire from critics who say the busts tarnish the reputations of people who have been convicted of no crime. They say that because of the nature of the accusations -- even if they are ultimately proved baseless -- the individuals' reputations are often ruined. Critics also say that exposing would-be child molesters is the job of professional law enforcement officers, not a group of amateurs.
But Von Erck dismisses assertions that anyone associated with his site is even capable of making a mistake or perpetrating a fraud.
"We have layers of redundancy and technology that allow us to not make those mistakes," he said.
At least one recently publicized case suggests Perverted-Justice is not always accurate.
Earlier this year The Associated Press reported that a Milwaukee bank teller was shocked when she received a threatening phone call from a man who said her number was posted on Perverted-Justice.com as belonging to a suspected child predator. The woman said she had never been online or even owned a computer, and was forced to change her telephone number.
Von Erck says the number had previously belonged to the individual the site was targeting but that when he moved it was reissued to the unsuspecting teller. He said the site had since changed its policy to ensure the same thing did not happen again, and now automatically removes telephone numbers that have been posted for more than two months.
Von Erck says he and a friend started the site in July 2002 after witnessing what he called "sickening" behavior in chat rooms for residents of Portland, Ore., where he lives.
"I was chatting in the Portland rooms for about two years," he said. When someone appearing to be a minor would enter the chat room, Von Erck said, adult men would immediately approach that chatter. "It was like throwing blood in the water around a bunch of sharks," he said.
A self-proclaimed libertarian and professional wrestling aficionado, Von Erck runs several Web sites where he talks about his hobbies and interests. One of the sites says he is planning to make a bid for the U.S. presidency in 2016.
Von Erck claims his group involves law enforcement whenever possible.
He says that when a member completes a chat and the telephone number is verified, the group often reaches out to local law enforcement.
"If we find someone [in law enforcement] then we give that information to them and they work it," he said.
But the Web site contradicts Von Erck's claim, suggesting the group expects police to make the first move and contact Perverted-Justice -- not the other way around. (Von Erck subsequently told ABCNEWS.com the policy posted on the site is out of date.)
"The fact is that they don't go to the police, the police have to come to them," said Jeff Woloson, a former Perverted-Justice volunteer who spoke to ABCNEWS.com
Of the 580 "busts" listed on the site -- each with the target's name and personal information -- five have contributed to a criminal conviction, the site says. Court records confirm the convictions.
In one case in Fayetteville, Ark., prosecutor John Theet says Perverted-Justice's chat logs were instrumental in convicting a man on one of two counts of computer child pornography.
"We used their chats because that was our case," said Theet.
However, Theet admits it's possible that Perverted-Justice chat logs wouldn't hold up in future cases. "There's potential for that in anything as far as maybe an entrapment defense or something," he said. "But not in this case."
Mark Rasch, a former U.S. attorney who has prosecuted numerous cybercrime cases, questions how useful Perverted-Justice's chat logs would be in court.
"What do you do if someone who they claim to have had the conversation with says 'I didn't type that'?" Rasch asked. "How do you prove it?"
While the group's critics do not question the volunteers' desire to protect children, they express concern that they get carried away by the thrill of the hunt.
Woloson, who was an active member of Perverted-Justice for several months, agrees. He says the feeling of power he had when harassing the group's targets was intoxicating, and he thinks many of the other members were motivated by the same thrills.
Woloson does question the volunteers' basic motivation. He believes the site's members are not motivated by a desire to protect kids, but instead by the "kick" they get from going after the targets. He fears that the "kick" makes them reckless and clouds their judgment.
During his time as a Perverted-Justice volunteer, Woloson says he helped seek out information on targeted individuals and then used that information to harass them.
A geriatric and hospice nurse now living in the Netherlands, Woloson said he came across the site while browsing the Internet.
"I really didn't have any kind of moral outrage at first," he said. "It just caught my fancy. It seemed interesting, it seemed amusing."
But Woloson says the thrill went sour for him when a chatter he was harassing threatened to commit suicide. Woloson says he expressed concern on the site's forums, hoping to open up a discussion with some of his fellow Perverted-Justice volunteers.
"They laughed," he said. "They said that if he did kill himself that would be OK, but that he was probably just trying to worm his way out of it and it meant that they should intensify the harassment against him."
Shocked and frustrated by the other volunteers' response, Woloson said he tried to continue the discussion by asking the others to "lay off" the man.
But after that, he said, Von Erck banned him from posting messages on the forums and blocked him from visiting the site from his computer.
Von Erck told ABCNEWS.com Woloson was banned for defending some of the site's targets, and denied that he was ever a Perverted-Justice volunteer. Archives of the site's discussion boards, however, contain postings by Woloson referring to his activity for the site.
With Perverted-Justice hoping to open up shop in Canada, England and Australia, the controversy is unlikely to go away anytime soon.
At least one of the group's targets -- a man caught in a media bust in the Kansas City area -- is planning to file a lawsuit against Perverted-Justice and the station that participated in the bust, KCTV. The man's lawyer, Miriam Rittmaster, says her client believed the chat was a joke set up by his fraternity brothers.
"He didn't do anything wrong," she said. "I've spoken with several police officers and prosecutors and they all said absolutely not, he hasn't broken any laws."
KCTV's news director, Regent Ducas, says he is unaware of any lawsuits, and that although to his knowledge no arrests were made as a result of the story, the station stands by its reporting.
Rittmaster says she has been in contact with lawyers for other Perverted-Justice targets who are considering filing lawsuits.
But Von Erck dismisses the prospect of lawsuits, saying the men are just lying to save their hides.
"A lot of these guys, they don't want to admit the truth. They have jobs. They have lives. They want to lie," he said. "They're criminals."