Police say they have seen a significant increase in online grooming reported as young people have been trapped at home, spending more time online vulnerable to perverts.
One Welsh police force says it has seen a 40% rise in reports of grooming and behind the statistics are young people tricked into performing sex acts and led into damaging online relationships.
The devious offenders often start with mudane, matter-of-fact conversation starters to win the trust of their young prey.
Detectives say they will start conversations with dozens of children at the same time, using the same introductory line over and over again.
One offender in Wales used the line “Hey hun sorry it’s random lol but we got friends in common hope it’s ok to be friends xxx” to start chats with 119 different children.
Another used a fake profile, pretending to be a teenage boy, and has 179 people accept his Facebook friend request. He then went on to secretly film 12 victims performing sexual acts, was caught and jailed for 15 years.
In another case, a 41-year-old predator posed as a 20-year-old to start 475 conversations with young people using the lines “hey”, “hey you”, “hey beautiful”, “hey babe”.
He complimented girls to gain their trust, then asked for photos and videos. Police found 39 indecent images of children on his phone. He was jailed for four years.
Officers urge young people not to trust anyone they meet online – and say that once offenders will spent huge amount of time winning trust and exchanging photographs before moving to online blackmail and sextortion.
When speaking to officers dealing with the crime in Wales, the examples just keep on coming.
Changes in internet habits.
Distant or emotional after being online.
Becoming withdrawn or secretive.
Talking about new online friends.
Having new contacts in their phone or device.
Worried about time away from their phone.
Mared, from Ffestiniog, knows the danger too well. She was 14 years old, when she started receiving messages from men in their 20s.
Friendly at first, the messages soon became sexual, with the online ‘friends’ insisting on the former Cardiff University student meeting them in real life.
Now 24 years old and working in London, she has realised that she was manipulated into sending sexual pictures of herself, and has shared her experiences to help warn other young people about the dangers of online grooming.
“My experience of grooming began on Facebook when I was 14 years old. At the time, I was getting messages from these relatively hot guys in their early and mid-20s.
You don’t think that’s weird at the time because these older guys have friends that you know of, or live in the same kind of area as you, so it doesn’t seem creepy.
I was 14 and hadn’t had any attention from boys before. Lads my age were bullying me and taking the mick out of me and I remember thinking “these older guys fancy me, they think I’mpretty”.
At first, I was sent messages like ‘Hey, how are you?” and “You know some of my mates” and “Are you in school?”’. It seemed like completely normal conversation, so I rolled with it.
As the weeks went on, they started sending messages that became more and more sexual. It went from ‘You’re very pretty’ and ‘That picture you posted is very nice’ to commenting on my figure and making sexual comments and asking me for pictures. It was so subtle; that’s why it is so easy for an online chat to slip into being so wrong.
The fact that other girls I knew were also speaking to older guys online made it feel quite normal. In the area where I grew up, it seemed like everyone was doing it. I thought there was no point mentioning it because I didn’t think it was wrong at the time. That’s the scary thing.
I thought, because other girls were doing it, if I stopped or said ‘no’ I wouldn’t get the guys’ attention anymore. That’s the vibe the boys would give me. If I didn’t reply the way they wanted me to, then they would say ‘you’re just too immature for me’. They were so manipulative, but you don’t even notice it while it’s happening.
At 14, when I received these sexual messages, I almost felt it was exciting, like I was doing something naughty and that I shouldn’t tell my parents. I didn’t feel like I could speak to adults about it because I thought I’d get into trouble for talking about sex with a guy. I was embarrassed about my parents finding out.
Looking back now, it’s scary to think that I sent semi-naked pictures to older guys. It could have gone a lot further. Some of my friends lived closer to the men who were messaging them and ended up just meeting the guys at their houses and sleeping with them. Like me, they were only 14 or 15 and the boys who had contacted them were in their 20s. The girls thought they were in relationships.
I was lucky I didn’t meet the men I was speaking to online. I lived in the middle of nowhere, where you need to get a 15min car drive to a bus or train station to go and see someone. I couldn’t have just walked out and met a guy if he’d asked me to. One guy in particular was insistent, and would say he could come and pick me up. I told him it couldn’t happen because my parents were very strict about who I was seeing and when.
I didn’t have any friends of driving age, so if he had driven up to my house my parents would have seen him and asked questions. I was annoyed at my parents about this at the time. I would have met up with him if I could. I was so lucky that my parents were the way they were – if they had been like some of my friends’ parents, who weren’t really in the loop about what their kids were doing when they were out, those guys could have driven over any time.
This particular guy gave up on me in the end, he got fed up of waiting and stopped replying.
The online grooming I experienced went on for about a year and a half, until I had my first boyfriend, whom I was with for three years. As I matured, I realised how wrong it had been for those men to talk to me about sex when I was still a child; that it was weird and wasn’t just like a ‘normal relationship’ sort of thing.
When I saw a video about the paedophile hunters on Facebook as an adult, it hit a nerve. The type of messages the hunters were getting from these paedophiles were the same kind of messages I used to get. I realised how predatory it was. I know these guys are still back home, now in their 30s, probably still doing the same thing to young girls at this very moment. It makes me feel ill.
When my little sister, who was 15 at the time, told me that one of her friends was ‘dating’ a man in his 20s a few years ago it was so upsetting. Because of my experience, my little sister has tried telling her friend it isn’t right. She encouraged her to either talk about it to someone or stop seeing him, but her friend said my sister was jealous about her having ‘a boyfriend’. That’s the kind of attitude that grooming can create: ‘I have an older boyfriend and it’s cool’. Those girls don’t see it as creepy – and they won’t for another couple of years.
If the person messaging them is a good-looking guy in his 20s, these girls might not identify it as grooming. To them it doesn’t sound like such a big age gap, but these are children and those men are adults. It really angers me.
It’s a weird assumption about online grooming: people associate it with a 60-year-old man behind a computer, talking to young girls. That’s what you often see on campaign ads – videos of an old actor typing a message to a young girl, paired with warnings. I have seen posters saying: ‘Do you think you are being groomed? Here’s what you should do’ but it’s difficult to get the message through to young people. They don’t always know they are being groomed until much later.
It’s not about stopping teenagers speaking to strangers online – that is not how people need to tackle it. We need to get the message across that not every predator looks the same. Not all predators are decades older, it wasn’t the case for me and my friends, but it was still adults grooming children. Perhaps if someone had told me at the time that what was happening to me was not right, if there had been more awareness of this, I would have questioned it and put an end to it sooner.
Detective Sergeant Shaun Davies of Dyfed Powys Police says: “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.”
The detective and his colleague Nia Evans, who works as an analyst in the digital investigation unit, say online offenders use the same line on dozens of children.
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 go fishing and keep using the same message time and time again until they have hooked someone.
“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.”
Often cases they deal with are complex, but they do urge anyone with concerns to come forward.
Nia recently dealt with an offender in his late 30s who had groomed more than 470 young people around the world.
He would talk them into sending inappropriate images and then blackmail them, and use them to trade with other offenders.
The investigation meant going through more than 100,000 lines of data and officers had to look through thousands of images and videos to bring him to justice.
“Some victims may not come forward because of fear about what may happen and what people might think of them,” she said. “They use that fear to threaten, but we will do our utmost for the victim to make sure that these offenders are stopped. We really do want to help.”
The would both like to see the major online platforms do more to prevent the offenders in the first place and to self report any offences.
This week, Instagram did add safety measures designed to protect teenagers from unwanted direct messages from adults.
Older users will be able to privately message teenagers who follow them only.
And messages will be overlaid with a notice reminding teenagers they need not respond to anything that makes them uncomfortable.
But the measures will only work only if accounts have users’ correct ages, which young people sometimes lie about to avoid the restrictions on what they can see.
Likewise, predators might pretend to be younger than they actually are.
- Reassure them that you’re interested in their life, offline and online. Recognise that they’ll be using the internet to research homework as well talking to their friends.
- Ask your child to show you what they enjoy doing online or apps they’re using so you can understand them.
- Be positive but also open about anything you’re worried about. You could say “I think this site’s really good” or “I’m a little worried about things I’ve seen here.”
- Ask them if they’re worried about anything, and let them know they can come to you.
- Ask them about their friends online and how they know they are who they say they are.
- Listen for the reasons why your child wants to use apps or site you don’t think are suitable, so you can talk about these together.
- Ask your child what they think’s okay for children of different ages so they feel involved in the decision making.
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.
Nia 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.
You can report an incident to Dyfed-Powys Police in the following ways:
In an emergency, always call 999
Other avenues of direct support are:
Goleudy Victim and Witness Support: email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0300
NSPCC: email email@example.com or call 0808 800 5000 Monday to Friday 8am – 10pm and 9am –
6pm at weekends
Childline: online chat at www.childline.org.uk 9am – 10.30pm, or call 0800 1111 9am – 3.30am
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/
Cecile Gwilym, policy and public affairs manager for NSPCC Cymru/Wales, explains that lockdown has created a “perfect storm” for online grooming and they say a 60% increase during the first lockdown.
One of the areas of particular concern is what they call “device rich but time poor families”.
“Offenders have been taking advantage of young people who are lonely and spending more time online,” she says. “It is a perfect storm. We have lots of advice for parents and children.
“It is important to keep up lines of communication with children and make them aware of the dangers from an early age.
“It is also important that parents are aware of what to look out for and to make a note of any sudden changes in their child’s behaviour.
“We also think that the upcoming election in Wales is a golden opportunity for parties to make a strong commitment to prevention education and training.”
For more details about online safety, visit the NSPCC here.