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Last Updated: Monday, 22 October 2007, 23:48 GMT 00:48 UK
When online friends spell danger
By Angela Harrison
Education reporter, BBC News

Image from Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP)
Parents feel their homes are invaded by online predators
Jasmine was horrified to discover her nine-year-old daughter had been messaging strangers.

A quick check revealed a trail of messages which stretched back months.

"They were telling her she was beautiful, although they didn't have a photo of her. They said she should come to their house.

"They said they lived at a place where the school was soon going on a residential trip and that she should visit them," she said.

"It is chilling, but thank goodness we have found all this out now and have had the chance to educate our children more about the dangers of going online and the need to keep personal details off the internet."

Jasmine's daughter had also filled in a "questionnaire" sent by one of a few suspect e-mailers.

There was something about the language, the phrases, the way the text looked that made alarm bells ring
Kate, parent

It asked for all sorts of personal details - which she had given - including her home address and phone number, as well as asking fun things such as her favourite games, TV programmes and characters.

Jasmine's daughter is one of the many children getting online at a younger and younger age.

Computer use is widespread. Four in 10 children aged between eight and 11 regularly use the internet according to Ofcom and even very young children have PCs or laptops in their bedrooms (not something recommended by child protection experts).

Jasmine is not sure how the suspect people first made contact. Some her daughter had mistakenly believed were friends of friends.

They were in her daughter's contacts on her instant messaging site but they mainly communicated by e-mail - typical offending behaviour, say the experts.

'Trusting and naive'

According to the UK police organisation, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), offenders will typically make contact in a chat area and then try to get a child into an e-mail or other one-on-one arena.

Another parent, Kate, was immediately suspicious when she read messages from her 10-year-old daughter's new online friend.

"There was something about the language, the phrases, the way the text looked (like spam mail) that made alarm bells ring, there were spelling mistakes which looked deliberate to me," she said.

"There were too many 'coincidences' as well. They said they were the same age, with almost the same birthday.

Graphic showing contact areas for online abuse

"They asked if she liked Pokemon and Polly Pocket - things she is really in to, and immediately asked if they could be best friends.

"My daughter, like most 10-year-olds, is trusting and a bit naive. She thought this was great and had messaged back 'Cool'."

The messaging had gone on for a couple of weeks before Kate noticed what was going on. Her daughter had just got into instant messaging and playing on children's gaming sites.

She looked up her daughter's message histories on her instant messaging service.

"The person seemed to know she had fallen out with a good friend and was being what looked to me to be over-friendly.

"'She' was asking about my daughter's family set-up, saying she lived with 'loads of boys' who were driving her crazy."

Jo Bryce, from the Cyberspace Research Unit at the University of Central Lancashire, says while older children are most likely to be victims of so-called online "grooming" - where children are befriended by people with the intention of abusing them - younger ones are also at risk.

"Offenders use cunning to identify vulnerable children, pretend to like the things they like and try to win their trust over time, "she said.

It's a case of horrible genius: children who write 'mum and dad are arguing' could be targeted
Jo Bryce, Cyberspace Research Unit

"Typically, someone looking for a victim will lurk in a chat area used by children and watch the interactions and get access to people they are interested in.

"They might see someone who is open to making friends. They are quite good at working out who looks vulnerable or lonely.

"It's a case of 'horrible genius'. Children who write 'mum and dad are arguing' or 'my best friend has dumped me' could be targeted. They can appear as a sympathetic ear, the only one who understands the child."

Kate's daughter and her friends also got messages from someone offering themselves as an agony aunt, saying they were someone's big sister and really good at sorting out problems.

The mailer said it was important they did not tell anyone they were messaging them.

"That's like a phishing expedition," says Jo Bryce from the Cyberspace Research Unit, which researches how criminals use the internet and develops internet safety materials.

"Sending an e-mail out to children, getting them to forward it on, finding out their problems and identifying the vulnerable," she said.

"Children in trouble might message back, thinking no-one of their age understands."

Exciting

One mother, a Frenchwoman living in London, said: "We tell our children not to talk to strangers, we walk them to school to keep them safe but give them the wherewithal to chat to anyone online.

"My daughter has had several unknown people e-mail her, but she knows now to delete them and not to reply.

"But the internet is exciting for children and so many children we know have cousins abroad that they can pass on contacts as pen-pals. It is easy for someone to infiltrate a group."

CEOP online safety tips for parents
Know what your children are doing online
Get them to show you how to do things
Help them understand not to give any personal information to online friends
Teach them to ignore spam
Teach them to ignore files sent by people they don't know
Teach them some people lie online
Tell them to keep online friends online
Keep talking so they know they can always tell you if something makes them feel uncomfortable
Show children how to block people online and how to report them

That is a view shared by Jo Bryce: "Where people have a closed network, if one person invites someone else in, it compromises the whole group".

She says it is vital to teach young children how to go safely online, in part in preparation for their teenage years, when research suggests children are most vulnerable to being befriended by paedophiles posing as someone else.

"Research suggests that children who are 'groomed' online tend to be teenagers. Studies such as those by David Finkelhor suggest the profile of children most likely to be victims is that of a girl aged between 13 and 15," said Jo Bryce.

"In 80% of cases, the girl knew that the man was older than her by the time she went to meet him.

"An offender might draw them in, at first saying they were just a few years older, then adding a few more. It's horribly manipulative and devious, getting them hooked on an emotional level first."

For children at primary school, where the latest educational campaign from the CEOP is aimed, parents can at least take comfort from knowing that their children are generally with them or with someone they know well.

But as parent Kate explains, even comparatively mild online experiences can leave you feeling that your child or family is vulnerable.

"For a responsible parent, who tries to keep their child safe and well, it is deeply disturbing to have your peace invaded by people you believe to be out to entrap children.

Image from Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP)
Young children are often unaware of online danger

"Do they know where you live? Are they watching? Your stomach churns, images of missing children and desperate parents hover in your mind. And the fact that the perpetrators use the innocent pastimes and passions of children as bait chills your blood further.

"The sad thing is that there are probably many vulnerable children out there who do not have someone checking who they are talking to on the internet. That's why such educational campaigns are so valuable."

Jo Bryce says technology is moving fast, creating more ways offenders can find victims - but so are defences.

"It's like an arms race: technology makes it easier for abusers to find victims but at the same time, awareness is being raised too, hopefully reducing the risk."

Jasmine sees her family's experiences as a wake-up call. "For a while it freaked me out. I am not a big worrier, but this was a new unknown threat, one I thought I had little control over.

"I didn't want to ban the messaging. The internet is here to stay and I decided I just had to help educate my daughter to the dangers without scaring her.

"There will be greater potential dangers online in the future. Maybe they will amount to the same thing: people pretending to be other people to lure the vulnerable - children or adults - and this may be good preparation for dealing with that."



VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
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SEE ALSO
Online safety push for children
22 Oct 07 |  Education
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20 Sep 06 |  Education

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