THE POLICE team which investigates reports of online exploitation and grooming in mid and west Wales has seen a 40 per cent rise in reports since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Highlighting a worrying trend, the Dyfed-Powys Police Online Investigation Team (POLIT) says it has seen a bigger increase in referrals over the past 12 months than in the four years since it was established.
With concerns that figures will continue to rise as the extent of lockdown and social isolation becomes clear in the coming months, parents and carers are urged to be aware of who their children are talking to online – as well as directly asking young people not to believe that online “friends” are who they say they are.
As part of INTACT – the force’s education, engagement and enforcement campaign tackling a range of serious and organised crimes – this month, awareness is being raised around child exploitation, particularly online.
Detective Sergeant Shaun Davies said: “The increase in cases coming to us since the beginning of lockdown and social restrictions came into force is shocking. Children are spending more and more time online, and are getting into conversations with people they don’t know.
“Online predators are taking advantage of children being isolated, missing their friends and needing company, and are preying on them more than ever. Our fear is that with the absence of trusted adults – teachers, youth club workers, sports coaches – more and more children will be suffering with nobody to turn to.
“We want to assure that we are still here to receive and investigate reports. We have specialist support available, and will never judge a victim. Please, please don’t feel too embarrassed to come forward – we are here to help, and the sooner the problem is raised, the sooner our enquiries can begin.”
DS Davies explained that online offenders will start conversations with dozens of children at the same time, using the same introductory line over and over again. They change their profile name, information and photo based on the child they are trying to target, and use a number of websites and apps to find victims.
“What we see is online predators preying on young people and their naivety,” he said. “They try to befriend them, and will make that person feel special, but in reality they are using conversation starters to lure them in until they get a response they think they can work on. They don’t have the pressure of time, and can hold multiple conversations over the course of an evening.
“We are urging people not to trust that the person they are speaking to is actually the person they make out to be in their profile – it’s a fictitious relationship.”
Officers and staff at POLIT have devised a method of retrieving and reading through all online conversations of someone under investigation for online grooming offences. This includes text and multimedia messages, notes, web history, call logs and chats on apps including Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, iMessage, Tinder, KIK, MeetMe, Omegle and Whisper.
Digital Investigation Unit analyst Nia Evans said: “We review chat records for evidence of further offending, possession and distribution of images, inciting a child to perform a sexual act, for the offence of sexual communication with a child, and to protect and safeguard children.
“When we are investigating a suspect, the average device has 60,000 lines of data in 500 to 600 different conversations – all of which we will analyse.”
Evidence shows that once the offender has gained enough trust to receive photos of the victim, they will often move on to the offence of sextortion – making threats that these images or videos will be shared with their friends and family if they do not continue to send more.
For young people, the emotional impact of this can be devastating, and investigators find victims believe their only option is to comply, for fear of the alternative.
“Once that photo has been sent, it’s completely out of your control and could be shared anywhere and with anyone,” DS Davies said. “One of the most distressing parts of this is that the victim will be plagued by the knowledge that their photo could still be available somewhere online into adulthood.
“Please don’t send images or videos to someone you have met online, or be coerced into performing sexual acts – no matter how far you believe your relationship has progressed. You might be secretly recorded, and will have no way of retrieving that footage or even knowing if it exists.
“If you are asked to send any images, end the conversation and tell a trusted adult. Do not be tempted to delete the conversation history as it might be helpful in a future investigation. If you have sent an image, it is not too late to report the incident – once we know what has happened, we can act on it and work to prevent other children from becoming victims.”
Parents are being urged to begin conversations with their children about staying safe online, to be aware of who they are speaking to, and to openly explain the risks of accepting requests from people they don’t know.
Dyfed-Powys Police works with the NSPCC, who will contact young people investigators have identified as potentially being in contact with a suspect, to offer guidance and support.
To call Dyfed-Powys police call 101, or in an emergency, 999.
For information on speaking to children about online safety:
Parents Protect: https://www.parentsprotect.co.uk/
UK Safer Internet Centre: https://www.saferinternet.org.uk/
Childnet International: https://www.childnet.com/