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Thursday, 6 July, 2000, 08:32 GMT 09:32 UK
Talking at cross purposes

Thousands of children log on to internet chat rooms everyday. But those who think they have found a friend may have attracted a dangerous predator. By BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy.

The internet has undergone a dramatic makeover in the past couple of years.

Once a refuge for pornographers and paedophiles - at least in the eyes of the media - today the net is a mainstream medium for shopping and holiday reservations.

So it's easy to forget the seedy, sometimes dangerous side, has not gone away, but is even greater than before.

Girl using a laptop
13 to 17-year-old girls are most at risk

The perils of internet chat rooms are highlighted in a new book, Katie.com. The book details American teenager Katherine Tarbox's experience of being lulled into a face-to-face meeting with a chat room contact.

Miss Tarbox, then aged 14, had built up a strong online rapport with a man called Mark, whom she believed to be 23. She agreed to meet him to cement the friendship.

She was indecently assaulted by the man and believed she would have been raped had she not got away. Her attacker, a 41-year-old called Francis John Kufrovich, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for the attack.

Closer to home, Kenneth Lockley recently became the first person to be charged in Britain for inciting an undercover police officer on the net to procure a young girl for sex.


[Do not] harass, threaten, embarrass or cause distress or discomfort upon another ... user

Rules, Yahoo! Chat

Mr Lockley was jailed for 18 months in May amid calls for further tightening of child sex laws in light of internet chat rooms.

John Carr, internet consultant with NCH Action for Children, says chat rooms have become an established honeypot for paedophiles to seek out their victims.

"The computer is part of [a child's] everyday life. It sits in the living room or the bedroom - intimate places where children feel comfortable but might reveal too much about themselves," says Mr Carr.

Hawking

Paedophiles using chat rooms have a technique known as "chicken hawking" to lure their victims, he says.

"They will go to a chat room where they believe children will be present. They will log on and spend some time "circling", that is just reading the chat.

Katie.com cover
Katherine Tarbox's experience is detailed in her new book

"When they believe a child has come into the chat room, they will swoop. They will pretend to be a child themselves and go off into a one-to-one conversation.

"They groom them and then they will ask the child to send them photographs of them undressed, or arrange to meet."

The "grooming" process can take weeks or even months, so the child gains confidence and trust in the relationship.

It's a chilling prospect for any parent, but chat rooms that are constantly "policed" offer at least some reassurance.

However, Internet Relay Chat - one of the most popular formats for online conversation - is not policed. Also no records are kept of IRC exchanges.

Grown-up forums

Ruth Dixon, of the Internet Watch Foundation, says the danger comes when users progress from heavily regulated child chat rooms, to other forums.

Internet users in China
The net's global spread makes controlling chat rooms tricky

American research shows the highest risk group is not very young children, but 13 to 17-year-old females, she says. Youngsters in that age group like to stray to beyond child chat rooms, and have enough independence to arrange a face-to-face meeting.

Mrs Dixon has been investigating chat rooms as a member of the Internet Crime Forum, which is chaired by the Association of Chief Police Officers.

The forum is preparing a report which is likely to recommend better education and awareness of the dangers of chat rooms among young people. The net's global spread makes it almost impossible to use more technical measures.

But Mrs Dixon also says children are not the only potential victims. Adults too have been lured into danger through chat rooms and they should apply similar levels of caution.

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26 Apr 00 | UK
Chat room danger warning
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