When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales last month announced the launch of the Justice Department's Project Safe Childhood, he cited a terrifying statistic: “It has been estimated that, at any given time, 50,000 predators are on the Internet prowling for children.” The Legal Times wondered where that figure originated? Spokespersons for the FBI, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire say it's not based on any research they're aware of.
A Gonzales aide later attributed the number to the NBC newsmagazine “Dateline,” which told Legal Times that “this is a number that was widely used in law enforcement circles.” Ken Lanning, a former FBI agent who had advised the show, is skeptical about the stat, whoever originated it. “Was it just a WAG – a wild-assed-guess?” he says. “It could have been.” In the late 1980s, the figure was cited by the media as an estimate of the number of people slaughtered annually by satanic cults. In the early 1980s, it was similarly cited as the number of children abducted annually by strangers. “For some reason the number 50,000 keeps popping up,” he says. “Maybe because it's not small and not large. It's a Goldilocks number.”