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Predator: Internet or social problem?

by Allan Maraynes, Dateline Senior producer

As of this writing, our 'To Catch a Predator' team has visited 6 states, 8 locations, and has broadcast almost 15 hours. What's been eye opening to all of us is, especially recently, is that many of those who are now coming to the undercover houses have actually seen our broadcasts. They actually worry out loud that the person on the other end might be part of a Dateline investigation.

And still they come. 

They finish their sexually graphic chats online with individuals clearly identified as underage, they get in their cars, sometimes driving hours, and most shocking of all, they open the door to a stranger's home and walk in!

You tell me. Is there a problem here?  If so, what does it tell us? 

What I do know is Dateline didn't discover the problem. Everyone knows that the Internet has some very bad neighborhoods; ones we warn our children to stay away from. For years, law enforcement has conducted stings of those who try to use the Internet to exploit sex, either involving children, or simply selling pornography.

What we did do was find a way to illustrate the problem. 

When we decided to observe what Perverted-Justice does, I knew it would be interesting to see, in real time, how online predators communicate with someone they believe is a minor.  But I wondered if one of them would actually be brazen enough to leave the cocoon of cyberspace, get in his car, and try to meet the "child." And if they did show up at a house, would they run?

I asked if we could actually get one of them to come inside a house.  If we did, could we get him to talk?

What I was looking for was person-to-person conversation. Some sustained communication that might shed some light on how online predators think.  How would they explain what they do and why they do it?

I was the first to think this was a long shot.  Why would an online predator stop to chat once he knew he had stepped into a very different situation than the one he'd expected?

Producer Lynn Keller along with our hidden camera team went to work. A house was rented.  Multiple cameras were installed.  The Perverted-Justice volunteers (posing as minors) went into the chat rooms were almost immediately approached by adults for sex, and proceeded to "invite" those adults to our house. 

Then our team waited. What happened next was astounding. When Correspondent Chris Hansen greeted these men instead of a young child, most froze like the proverbial deer in the headlights. Except these deer were talking.  And talking… and talking.

What resulted was an incredible glimpse into the mind of the predator. What I am convinced Dateline has done for the first time, is illustrate that these predators don't look like snakes, or worms, or whatever creatures run for cover when rocks are turned over. 

These are often normal, average, next door neighbors. Respected members of society.  Teachers, doctors, clergymen. That's what I think has triggered it all.  And this is why  I truly believe the Dateline series has made us pay much more attention to the problem.

When we began our investigation we had no idea it would evolve into a series of broadcasts.  But since these men continue to arrive at our undercover houses, all looking for sex with a minor, we're still asking what it means?  Is it merely an Internet problem?  Or does it say something about deeper social ill that needs to be explored?

We're still trying to figure it out, and we hope our viewers are trying to learn along with us.