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Tuesday, 7 August, 2001, 12:03 GMT 13:03 UK
'How I lured paedophiles online'
Rachel O'Connell
Rachel O'Connell: "I had to have regular counselling"
How do paedophiles operate on the net? In our weekly Real Time series, Rachel O'Connell tells how she posed as a chatroom child.

I started investigating how paedophiles use the internet to get access to kids in 1996, as part of my PhD.

Chatroom advice
Ensure program saves chats
Trace IP addresses of online 'friends'
Think 'Would a real teenager say this?'
Don't reply if they make you uneasy
Don't give personal details or meet up
I first explored their newsgroups, and found a supportive virtual community exchanging fantasies and alleged experiences, and also child pornography.

Some of the technically sophisticated guys also shared information on how to avoid detection with those who weren't up to speed.

At the time, these newsgroups were relatively easy to find because they had obvious names. I won't tell you in case it sends the curious in for a look [and UK internet service providers have agreed to tighten controls on such sites].

So lonely

The next logical step was to see how paedophiles groom children in chatrooms, so I posed as an eight, 10 or 12-year-old to see how I would be approached.

Seized images of children
Paedophiles swap files online
I usually gave out lines such as, 'My parents are always fighting' and 'I've moved to a new school' - the words of a child who's quite isolated.

In the time I spent online, I was approached by loads of men. It was really tough work - I had to have regular counselling, because it wasn't the type of thing I could talk about with my friends.

They go through a friendship-forming phase, in which they identify a target child - in this case, me - and pose as someone just a few years older.

My research has moved on now - for my own sanity

They talk about whatever the child is interested in, be it online gaming or the band Steps. As with the start of any friendship, they say things like 'You sound really nice' and 'I like talking to you' to create a sense of trust.

Then they start asking things of a sexual nature - 'Have you ever been kissed' or 'Do you touch yourself?' - and may suggest an offline meeting.

This sounds pretty bad, until you remember that the child thinks they're talking to another child who's slightly older.

Coronation St
Coronation Street Sarah-Louise and mother Gail
Earlier this year, I worked with the Coronation Street writers developing the script for Gary, the man who stalks Sarah-Louise after meeting her in a chatroom.

They wanted advice on what he might say, how things might progress, and just how manipulative he could be.

Hence, when her parents drop her off to meet her new friend, he reassures them and they drive off thinking, 'Our daughter will be safe with this guy's son.'

Forewarned is forearmed

My research has moved on now - mostly for my own sanity - and because I learned enough to put together an effective prevention programme for kids.

Rachel at summer school
Rachel offers advice on internet safety
The best form of defence is to equip kids to gather evidence about the people they talk to online.

We've just run our first summer school on internet safety, to teach kids to run these checks routinely. But we don't preach to them. There's no point telling a 12-year-old not to do something, otherwise it'll become the most attractive thing in the world to do, ever.

Trying to groom kids online is a high-risk activity, and paedophiles exchange information about the children they talk to online. If they know a child is gathering IP addresses, then that child becomes a far less attractive target.

Rachel O'Connell works for the Cyberspace Research Unit at the University of Central Lancashire. For advice on how children can chat safely on the net, see the internet links near the top of the page on the right-hand side.

If you've got a story you would like to tell to Real Time, click here.

See also:

30 Jul 01 | Entertainment
06 Jul 00 | UK
23 May 00 | UK
19 Jun 01 | Science/Nature
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