Kids with a Clue

updated 09/15/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/15/2003 01:00AM

Crack law-enforcement agents struggle to break an ingenious code: 12m, omg, wte, pos. Two special FBI instructors stand by patiently. The agents are stumped and hazard wild guesses. The instructors giggle and toss their ponytails.

Clearly the agents have a lot to learn from their teachers, Mary and Karen, two cyber-savvy 14-year-olds just out of braces and grade school. Part of the FBI's Operation Innocent Images, Mary and Karen (last names withheld at FBI request) have helped train approximately 120 federal, state and local agents to act and sound like young girls and boys as they surf the Internet searching for sexual predators. From 1996 to 2002 there was a nearly 2,000 percent increase in the number of online child pornography and exploitation cases investigated by the FBI, from 113 to 2,370. The bureau estimates that of the 45 million U.S. children under 18 who use the Internet, fully one-fifth have received a sexual advance online. Recruiting instructors as young as Mary and Karen "has never happened in the FBI before," says Peter Brust, the assistant special agent in charge of Operation Innocent Images. "But this is a deadly serious topic, and what these girls do is very important."

The idea to use the two teens occurred to one of their fathers, an FBI agent, while watching his daughter send an instant message using what looked like hieroglyphics. The girls receive no salary but do get community service credits at school. Inspired by the memory of Kacie Woody (see sidebar), they have proven to be focused and unflappable. "We took her story to heart," says Karen. Adds Mary: "We're safer now because we know what not to do."

Others are safer because of the girls' keen insight into Avril Lavigne (not so hot) and 50 Cent (red hot). Mary and Karen, in yellow FBI polo shirts, hold classes about once a month and start by giving their agents-in-training a pop-culture quiz. (Sample question: True or false? "Angel" by Amanda Perez is a popular perfume. "False," Mary and Karen chant in unison. "It's a song.") "She's real up on style and music and she's on the computer a lot," says Karen's mother, Donna, 42. "This is something she takes seriously." The girls also tutor agents in what shoe size to say they wear, which teen magazines to read and which celebs to gush about. "Is P. Diddy cool?" one agent asks. "Yes, he just came out with a new song," Karen explains.

Most agents, wary at first of instructors in shorts and Adidas, quickly come around. "With the advice they gave me, I'll change how I chat online," says Brian, a 30-year-old officer from a Midwest law-enforcement agency who scored a pathetic 6 out of 24 on his quiz. "For one thing, I use too much punctuation." The training provided by the girls "has been cited in court," says their FBI supervisor, Stacey Bradley. They have also received letters of commendation from FBI Director Robert Mueller and shaken hands with President Bush at a White House briefing. "I'd rather meet the President than a movie star," says Mary. "The President does something. A movie star just has to be hot."

The two best friends, who have been with the FBI since last October, will continue as instructors even after starting high school this month. Honor-roll students into sports and theater, both foresee careers in law enforcement, Karen as an FBI agent and Mary as a lawyer "who puts bad guys in jail." For now it's enough that they, at least, know the meaning of such IM lingo as 12m (listening to music), omg (oh my God!), wte (whatever) and pos (parents over shoulder). "They're not professionals, they're little girls," says Brust, "and that's why they're valuable to us."

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