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Tuesday, 19 November, 2002, 14:13 GMT
Paedophiles who roam the internet
Anti-paedophile banner
Paedophiles use the net to lure unsuspecting victims

For many paedophiles, the internet has become the means not just to find pornographic images, but also potential victims.

Known as "grooming", the process usually involves the offender making contact with children in chat rooms.

Over a period of weeks or months, he will try to befriend a youngster...particularly someone who appears naive or vulnerable.

What begins as a seemingly innocent online conversation eventually turns to sex, as the paedophile tries to snare his victim.

Typically, the child may be encouraged to take indecent photographs, and then email the images to their new "friend".

Even more alarming, the paedophile may try to persuade the victim to agree to a meeting.

Alarm

Until now, it has been difficult for the police to take action against sex abusers who trawl the internet.

"At the moment, the way the law stands, we have 'attempt' sexual abuse," says John Carr, of the children's charity NCH.

"So the police have to literally find the paedophile with his hands on the child.

"We don't want it to get this far. If a 47-year-old man is talking to an 11-year-old child about sex, it is obvious what is going on."

The risk of children being lured into sexual abuse via the internet is now very real. The rapid increase in online "grooming" has alarmed police and child protection agencies.

NCH says that over the past two years, 15 children have been raped or abused by adults they met on the net.

Contact

The charity has set out guidelines on its website to help parents ensure that their children surf safely.

The instructions to children are clear: never give out an address or phone number, the name of your school, or anything else that might identify you.

The problem is that the child may think they are talking to another youngster - posing as a teenager is a trick used by many paedophiles to make contact with potential victims.

Chris Atkinson, of the NSPCC, highlights the risk: "Once contact is made in a chat room, it escalates very quickly to a mobile phone, text messaging, and eventually, face-to-face contact."

To meet the threat from paedophiles operating online, the police are now making full use of computer technology.

The West Midlands force has developed software that can identify people trying to access sexual images of children.

They can even set up a dummy internet site, which appears to contain child pornography.

It is identified by key words used by the paedophile. But when he tries to enter the site he receives a police warning.

Powers

Anyone who ignores these warnings is liable to be traced, but it is hoped that others, perhaps thinking of entering this sordid world, may be scared off.

Those buying images of child pornography on the internet are already liable to prosecution.

Police in North Wales recently arrested a dozen suspects thought to have used credit cards to access pay-per-view websites.

That the government plans to give police new powers is an indication of the scale of the problem.

Despite an increasing number of police operations aimed at paedophiles, it is thought that thousands of offenders are still active.

What has surprised detectives is that many of the suspects arrested have been professional people, in positions of trust, who have not previously come to the notice of the police.

They have included teachers, police officers, and others with jobs giving them easy access to children.

Now they hope the measures announced by the government signal a determination to crack down on the paedophiles roaming the internet.

See also:

19 Nov 02 | Politics
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