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Users could be unnerved about the extent to which their conversations are reviewed, at least by computer programs.'We've never wanted to set up an environment where we have employees looking at private communications, so it's really important that we use technology that has a very low false-positive rate,' he said.

Metaverse Chief Executive Amy Pritchard said that in five years her staff only intercepted something 'terrifying' once, about a month ago, when a man on a discussion board for a major media company was asking for the email address of a young site user.

Software recognised that the same person had been making similar requests of others and flagged the account for Metaverse moderators.

Technology is available for verifying the ages of Web and app users.

One of the providers is Aristotle International Inc, which offers a variety of methods, including having a parent vouch for a child and make a token payment with a credit card to establish the parent's identity.

Duncan, one of a half-dozen law enforcement officials interviewed who praised Facebook for triggering inquiries, said: 'The manner and speed with which they contacted us gave us the ability to respond as soon as possible.'Facebook is among the many companies that are embracing a combination of new technologies and human monitoring to thwart sex predators.

Such efforts generally start with automated screening for inappropriate language and exchanges of personal information, and extend to using the records of convicted pedophiles' online chats to teach the software what to seek out.

'There are companies out there that are more concerned about profitability.'Also in June, a teen-oriented virtual world called Habbo Hotel, which boasts hundreds of millions of registered users, temporarily blocked all chatting after UK television reported that two sex predators had found victims on the site and that a journalist posing as an 11-year-old girl was bombarded with explicit remarks and requests that she disrobe on webcam.

Former employees said site owner Sulake of Finland laid off many in-house workers earlier this year, leaving it unable to moderate 70 million lines of daily chat adequately.

Sulake said it had kept 225 moderators and is still investigating what went wrong.

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).

The looser the filters, the more the need for the most sophisticated monitoring tools, like those employed at Facebook and those offered by independent companies such as the UK's Crisp Thinking, which works for Lego, Electronic Arts, and Sony Corp's online entertainment unit, among others.