'Child police' trap internet groomers
DETECTIVES posing as young girls on internet chatrooms have caught five potential child molesters in the first nationwide "grooming" crackdown ever carried out by Scottish police, The Scotsman can reveal.
The covert operation to catch paedophiles targeting children on the internet was launched four weeks ago and coincides with the introduction of a new law which made grooming youngsters for sex an offence.
One man, from the Lothians, was arrested last week after detectives pretending to be a 12-year-old girl met him on a chatroom. Following a correspondence lasting several weeks, police swooped on the man in a public street after arranging a rendezvous with the individual who thought he was going to meet his victim.
Another man was viewed performing a sex act in front of a web camera after police, again posing as a young girl, chatted to him for 30 minutes. The man's home was pinpointed to a location in England and the case has been passed to officers south of the Border.
The Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act was granted Royal Assent in July and came into force earlier this month. It created a new offence of grooming a child under 16 for the purposes of committing a sexual offence, which carries a maximum penalty of ten years' imprisonment.
The new operation is being led by Scotland's National Hi-tech Crime Unit. Detective Chief Inspector Bob Hamilton, who heads the unit, said: "Internet grooming is an area we are now focusing our attention on following the new legislation. That has given us clear direction in our investigations. It's something we are keen to get involved in as much as possible."
Detectives say grooming is a major problem, with potential targets being identified every day on Scottish-based chatrooms. But Mr Hamilton said police were "up for the challenge" of tracking them down and bringing them to justice.
"People think the police are scared off by the internet but that's nonsense. We have had success and we are having success," he said.
"Paedophiles are attracted to the internet because they think it gives them the cover of anonymity, but equally we can use that cloak of anonymity to our advantage.
"People need to get the message that we are policing the internet and that if someone tries to groom children on the internet, we will catch them."
The operation follows the completion of Operation Ore, a massive investigation into child pornography on the net, which targeted more than 400 suspects in Scotland.
A recent survey showed that Scottish children are the most likely in the country to meet up with someone they are introduced to on the internet.
A YouGov poll showed that 89 per cent of Scottish children who use internet chatrooms would arrange to visit someone they had met - and that 22 per cent would do so without their parents' knowledge. The UK average is 4 per cent.
Sixty per cent said they would use internet chatrooms, but 52 per cent said they would do so without being supervised.
In March, the judge Lord Reed issued a stark warning of the dangers of online chatrooms as he jailed internet predator Robert Sharkey, from Kilmarnock, for ten years.
"Young people need to be aware that these chatrooms are targeted by older men who are predatory and manipulative. They need to be aware of the risk and take care before revealing personal details or arranging to meet people in that way," he said.
Deputy Chief Constable Bob Ovens, the spokesman on child protection issues for the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, yesterday echoed that message.
He said: "The internet has been a great benefit to society, but parents should be aware that there are bad people out there on chatrooms who will pretend to be someone they are not."
The leading children's charity Barnardos last year conducted a study, called Just One Click, which found 80 youngsters they were in contact with had been victims of internet grooming.
John Watson, police officer at Barnardos Scotland, said: "That made it clear to us there was a significant problem so we welcomed the new legislation and expect the police to be proactively monitoring the internet, looking for this kind of behaviour. We welcome this new operation."
The Scottish Executive launched an advertising campaign last year to warn children and parents about the potential dangers posed by internet chatrooms. The 120,000 Think You Know campaign gave advice on how to protect young people from so-called internet grooming by paedophiles.
An Executive spokeswoman said: "Child sex abuse is one of the most evil, despicable crimes in society today. It can leave emotional and physical scars that last a lifetime.
"We are committed to doing all we can to support the police, courts and other organisations in tackling this problem."
A Scottish council has become the first in the country to be given access to a police database of 3,000 sex offenders.
Social workers in Dumfries and Galloway have been trained in using VISOR, allowing them to track high risk offenders entering the area. Access will be extended to Fife, Stirling and Dundee councils, before it is rolled out to local authorities across the country, and the Scottish Prison Service.
Chilling cases highlight dangers of chatrooms
THE most high-profile case of internet grooming involved a former US marine, Toby Studabaker, 31, who persuaded a 12-year-old girl from Wigan to elope overseas with him.
Studabaker, a widower from Michigan, met his victim in a chatroom aimed at primary-school children.
He lied about his age, but maintained at his trial that the girl had said she was 17.
Friendly chats progressed to emotional discussions and then to "cybersex".
The girl's parents said their daughter would spend up to 11 hours a day on the internet, although they had tried to limit this to five hours.
The schoolgirl was persuaded to get her passport from her parents and meet up with Studabaker at Manchester Airport in July 2003.
The couple went on the run travelling to London, Paris, Strasbourg and Stuttgart, sparking off a four-day international manhunt.
Police officers orchestrated a carefully managed "exit strategy" which included advice from psychologists aimed at Studabaker giving himself up and allowing the girl to return home.
Studabaker was jailed for four and a half years at Manchester Crown Court after pleading guilty to child abduction and forcing her to commit gross indecency.
In 2001 James Gilmour, 50, a convicted rapist, was arrested at Edinburgh bus station only hours after the father of a 12-year-old girl found out that Gilmour had arranged to meet his daughter and take her to Glasgow.
Gilmour, who had been released early on license from a seven-year sentence for raping a 15-year-old girl, pretended to be a boy of 13 when he first entered a children's chatroom. He first made contact with the teenager on Christmas Day 2000, only hours after she logged on to the computer she received as a Christmas present.
After gaining her confidence, Gilmour persuaded the child to give him her e-mail address and began bombarding her with pornographic images, including photos of a naked and bruised child and another of adults having sex.
Several months later the girl's father logged in under his daughter's name after receiving an unexplained telephone call. He discovered the hardcore pornographic pictures and then read a chilling message which related to an arranged rendezvous at the bus station later that day.
"The most chilling bit was the bit which read: 'Remember, don't tell your mum and dad'," the girl's father said.
In a more recent case Simon Moore, 36, from Hackney, east London, was jailed for three years at the High Court in Edinburgh in May after Sheriff George Kavanagh at Paisley Sheriff Court said he did not have adequate sentencing power.
Moore first had sex with a 13-year-old girl he met through an internet chatroom aimed at the 14-20 age-group after booking into a hotel in Glasgow.
He then slept rough in a 'hide' in Rannoch Woods in Johnstone, Renfrewshire, near his victim's home, where he again persuaded her to have sex.
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