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Sites that operate with such software still should have one professional on safety patrol for every 2,000 users online at the same time, said Sacramento-based Metaverse Mod Squad, a moderating service.At that level the human side of the task entails “months and months of boredom followed by a few minutes of your hair on fire,” said Metaverse Vice President Rich Weil.

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Yet even though defensive techniques are now available and effective they can be expensive.Under a 1998 law known as COPPA, for the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, sites directed at those 12 and under must have verified parental consent before collecting data on children.Some sites go much further: Disney’s Club Penguin offers a choice of viewing either filtered chat that avoids blacklisted words or chats that contain only words that the company has pre-approved.The better software typically starts as a filter, blocking the exchange of abusive language and personal contact information such as email addresses, phone numbers and Skype login names.But instead of looking just at one set of messages it will examine whether a user has asked for contact information from dozens of people or tried to develop multiple deeper and potentially sexual relationship, a process known as grooming.The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children processed 3,638 reports of online “enticement” of children by adults last year, down from 4,053 in 2010 and 5,759 in 2009.

Even those companies with state-of-the-art defenses spend far more time trying to stop online bullying and attempts to sneak profanity past automatic word filters than they do fending off sex predators.

Officers took control of the teenager’s computer and arrested the man the next day, said Special Agent Supervisor Jeffrey Duncan of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The alleged predator has pleaded not guilty to multiple charges of soliciting a minor.

“The manner and speed with which they contacted us gave us the ability to respond as soon as possible,” said Duncan, one of a half-dozen law enforcement officials interviewed who praised Facebook for triggering inquiries.

Facebook is among the many companies that are embracing a combination of new technologies and human monitoring to thwart sex predators.

By some measures, Internet-related sex crimes against children have always been rare and are now falling (as are reports of assaults on minors that do not involve the Net).