For three years, two Howard County girls have taught teen culture to FBI agents hunting pedophiles online. But now, they're just too old.

Cybercrime fighters past prime - at 16

June 07, 2005|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN STAFF

Karen and Mary still like to tell the FBI what's hot and what's not. And the girls haven't tired of testing out-of-touch agents on fashionable hip-hop songs and the latest cryptic abbreviations kids send across the Internet.

But this spring, the nation's largest law enforcement agency delivered some tough news to the Howard County high school sophomores:

At 16, you're so, like, over.

According to the bureau, Karen and Mary needed to retire because they had become too old for their jobs - teaching FBI undercover agents how to impersonate young teens online to catch prowling pedophiles.

"It's like, not a big deal," said Karen, who cheerily accepted her walking papers. "I mean, we're just here to help the kids."

Three years ago, Karen and her friend Mary, then 13, were recruited by the FBI's Baltimore office in a first-in-the-nation approach to fighting cybercrime. (The Sun, at the FBI's request, agreed not to use the girls' full names to shield them from potential harassment on the Internet.)

It all started when one of the girls' fathers, an FBI agent, saw his daughter at their home computer. When he looked at her screen, all of the instant-messaging windows quickly disappeared except for one.

"POS" was the only word on the screen.

His daughter refused to say what the word meant. Her father insisted.

"POS," she explained, stands for "parent over shoulder."

Intrigued, the agent then asked one of his undercover agents working on tracking pedophiles on the Internet about the term. She didn't know either.

Then, the girl's father said, he knew it was time to bring in reinforcements.

So his daughter enlisted a friend, and together Karen and Mary designed a hip vocabulary list, crafted a quiz on teen culture and played hit songs for dozens of agents from around the world, often on a monthly basis.

Undercover agents knew that Internet predators screened potential victims for their knowledge of basic chat lingo such as BTW ("by the way") and LOL ("laughing out loud") and whether pop groups such as the Backstreet Boys were still cool. (Karen: "That is, like, so five years ago.")

`They've been amazing'

But Stacey Marie Bradley, a supervising special agent for the Innocent Images program in the FBI's Calverton office, said that without updates from Karen and Mary, her office could have stumbled badly.

"Before they started to help us, we had to kind of wing it," Bradley said. "They've been amazing."

Cyberstalkers know that they can be trapped by law enforcement. Bradley remembers a suspect, a New York City police officer, who tested her constantly on teen fads in an effort to see whether he was being set up. "So we need to be current," she said.

Like an actor walking onto a stage, one of Bradley's agents puts on a baseball cap and turns it backward to get into character before he goes online at the FBI's Calverton office.

The national Innocent Images program started a decade ago after the disappearance of a Prince George's County girl produced two suspects who regularly trolled the Internet.

Since then, agents based here have busted a Navy commander, an elderly man from Alaska and an Arkansas "traveler" who had decorated his hotel room with rose petals to lure in his intended victim.

The most recent local arrest came Friday when the FBI arrested a Delaware man outside a motel room in Joppa and charged him with luring a California teenager to Maryland for a sexual rendezvous. The 15-year-old girl disappeared from her home Thursday, but investigators said they tracked her down by finding X-rated pictures and e-mail correspondence from the man on her home computer. She was found safe in his motel room.

Bradley said the problem is more pervasive than the average parent might think. Innocent Images has opened 14,377 cases since 1995, securing 5,314 convictions through March of this year.

What's `CTC'?

For the last three years, an afternoon with Karen and Mary has become a required - and popular - part of the weeklong training for undercover cyber-agents from Texas to Thailand.

Dressed in matching white capri pants and orange flip-flops, the girls confidently recently walked into one of their final sessions.

Bradley said jokingly that the girls needed to be put out to pasture. "I think we'll get them into a rest home," she said, laughing.

But the baby-faced girls still owned the room as they passed out their latest quiz.

The blond one spoke first: "Hi, I'm Karen."

Then the brunette: "Hi, I'm Mary."

The 13 agents who sat at desks with Dell computers seemed more bewildered by the tests than by the age of their teachers. One agent threw up her hands in frustration. Another asked the girls what he was supposed to do when he didn't know the answer.

Karen and Mary led the class through the answers with knowing smiles. They congratulated students who guessed right - girls do indeed like baseball and Law and Order: SVU. They also revealed that country music and R&B are newly popular with the junior set, too.

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