The overwhelming majority of children abducted by strangers eventually return home safely, experts say, though very few are held as long as the nine-month ordeal of Elizabeth Smart.

About 4,600 children are abducted each year by strangers, according to Ann Scofield of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. But she said most are held only briefly before being freed.

Only 100 or so abductions by strangers each year fit into more serious categories -- cases in which the child is held for an extended period of time or is killed, she said.

Elizabeth Smart's abduction from her Salt Lake City home last June captured the nation's attention and, coupled with two high-profile abduction-murder cases in California, contributed to a perception that there was an epidemic of child abductions.

But experts said kidnapping by strangers has always been rare and is probably on the downswing.

Scofield said Elizabeth Smart's safe recovery, resulting in part from telephoned tips, "reflects the change that has occurred in how our nation handles child abductions."

"We are a more educated nation ... with a public more ready to participate in search and recovery," Scofield said. Nine months later, "this girl had not been lost in time," she said.

Most child abductions in the United States are the work of parents or other relatives. But experts in the field say precise statistics on child abductions are elusive, in part because different jurisdictions define the crime differently.