Lauren Nelson with <EM>America's Most Wanted</EM> host John Walsh Lauren Nelson with America's Most Wanted host John Walsh

This Saturday on America's Most Wanted (9 pm/ET on Fox), viewers will see Lauren Nelson use her Miss America powers for good, as a "special investigator" enlisted to snare online predators in a very different Web. Nelson, who has dedicated her reign to promoting Internet safety for kids, posed in chat rooms as a 14-year-old girl, and found herself on the receiving end of overtures at first plain and genteel, but for the most part ultimately graphic and sexually perverse in nature. The end game? To give a would-be predator enough rope with which to hang himself, by arranging for an in-person "meeting" with Nelson's underage alter ego. The perv would instead, however, be greeted by AMW host John Walsh and the Suffolk County (New York) Computer Crimes Unit.

Detailing for the fine line she had to brave within the instant-messaging arena, Nelson, 21, says her teen persona never made the first move — nor needed to. "[The men] would send the first message, saying, 'ASL,' or 'age/sex/location,' so immediately they know that I am a 14-year-old girl from Long Island," she shares. "From there, they started a conversation and escalated it to a sexual level. And they came, on their own time and very willingly, to this [decoy] house to have sex with a 14-year-old."

But as these cyberchats grew dicey in nature, did Nelson have to pruriently play along to sustain the sting operation? "No, we played innocent," she says. AMW's John Walsh reiterates, "Lauren is a 21-year-old lady, and nobody asked her nor did she try to take [the conversation] to another level, to entrap them by saying anything salacious or off-color to lure them [to the house]. These guys, it's almost like they're talking to and titillating themselves, so our job was not to provoke them or be provocative, but to say, 'Yeah, I'm dumb enough or naive enough or curious enough for you to come here."

Such experienced predators, though, are apt to be on guard, knowing (yet not caring?) that what they seek to accomplish is morally bankrupt if not outright criminal. "They're very sophisticated and smart," Walsh allows. "Some of the guys drove around the house for three or four hours, feeling that it might be a Dateline [To Catch a Predator] house or a setup." That concern, though, stopped few in their tracks. "As the father of a murdered child, I've been studying these guys forever," Walsh says, "and I know there is a place where they cross the line, only because the compulsion is so great. One guy drove two and a half hours, he has three kids and he's in the middle of a divorce, and the webcam stuff he sent [Lauren] would make you puke. And yet he still did it, he took the chance to ruin his life, all because he thought he was going to beat the system... and have sex with a 14-year-old girl."

One of the predators caught in this sting — a career creep dubbed "The Phantom" — has been getting away with such statutory liaisons for two years, all while evading AMW's watchful eye. The bait dangled by Nelson, though, crippled his defenses and ultimately landed his foot in the bear trap. "The only reason he, 'The Phantom,' came on that porch is because Lauren was not salacious or provocative, but because of her naïveté, her sincerity. When she made that call [to invite him over], she was shaking, and I give her a lot of credit."

Still, as Walsh, a veteran of such grassroots crimefighting, knows, and as Nelson has now seen for herself, snaring a few scoundrels in a one-time sting op is but a drop in the bucket. "We just scratched the surface," Walsh nods, "and Dateline feels the same way. But I really believe that though it is just the tip of the iceberg, it's all about the education process." Adds Nelson, "If we can get awareness [about online predators] out to as many families as possible, that's what this is all about."

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