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June 05, 2003
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Tutoring FBI on How Teens Communicate

8th-graders helping ensnare pedophiles on the Internet

Phuong Ly, The Washington Post

As undercover assignments go, posing as a teenage girl online to catch pedophiles has its share of challenges for the typical FBI agent.

Should he ever capitalize words in instant messages?

Is it OK to say you buy your clothes at 5-7-9?

And Justin Timberlake -- is he still hot or is he so two years ago?

For those investigative details, the FBI calls on Karen, Mary and Kristin --

Maryland eighth-graders and best friends.

During the past year, the three have been teaching agents across the country how to communicate just like teenage girls, complete with written quizzes on celebrity gossip and clothing trends and assigned reading in Teen People and YM magazines. The first time the girls gave a quiz, all the agents failed.

"They, like, don't know anything," said Mary, 14, giggling.

"They're, like, do you like Michael Jackson?" said Karen, 14, rolling her eyes.

Probably the youngest instructors ever in an FBI classroom, the girls have become an invaluable help to Operation Innocent Images -- an initiative that tries to stop people from peddling child pornography or otherwise sexually exploiting children, FBI officials said. (The girls' last names are being withheld to protect them from harassment on the Internet and elsewhere.)

On Tuesday, at their middle school graduation ceremony, the girls each received a silver-framed letter of commendation signed by FBI Director Robert Mueller. In the letter, Mueller thanked them for developing the lessons that have directly helped catch pedophiles, despite their "busy 8th-grade schedule."

Operation Innocent Images was launched by the Baltimore FBI field office in 1995, and agents looked into 113 suspects in the first year. Over the years, Internet pedophiles have become more savvy and more suspicious about whether they are chatting with a law enforcement agent or a real teenager. Many of the suspects question the chatters on trends and pop culture, trying to catch the FBI agents off guard.

Karen, Mary and Kristin -- honor roll students, PacSun shoppers and aficionados of pink toenail polish -- have kept the FBI a step ahead, said Gary Bald, special agent in charge of the Baltimore office.

The girls were recruited after one of their fathers, an agent involved in the pedophile investigations, watched her instant messaging a friend and couldn't understand what she was typing. He realized that FBI training wasn't enough.

"We can teach agents how to be careful and make sure they're following the law and how to arrest people," Bald said. "But how to convince people they're a 13-year-old is something we need help on."

Agents estimate that at any given time, 20,000 pedophiles are online worldwide, trolling chat rooms after school hours for vulnerable teenagers. The program has led to the convictions of about 2,200 people across the country for swapping child pornography or arranging to meet minors for sex.

Around the FBI offices, Karen, Mary and Kristin have become like the agents' adopted daughters, getting hugs and high-fives from their students. But naturally, the adults often think they know best.

One agent kept insisting that he was right when he answered on a quiz that Timberlake was more popular than Destiny's Child. Another was miffed when the girls told the class that Led Zeppelin was just not cool. Some kept wondering why "l2m" in instant messaging couldn't be "love to meet," instead of "listen to music."






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