215 trapped by online child sex abuse sting

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The Independent Online

Police have snared more than 200 online sexual predators in a major operation targeting social networking sites, it was revealed today.

Detectives uncovered thousands of explicit exchanges between the men and their young victims on the internet.

Operation Defender, conducted by Central Scotland Police, identified 150 children and teenagers who had been preyed on using social networking sites.

In some cases they had met up and had sexual relations with their online groomer.

The force said 215 men had been caught, resulting in 15 arrests to date.

They used a combination of email, instant messaging and chat applications to engage with unsuspecting youngsters and send explicit messages and images.

Police warned parents and carers to be vigilant about the potential dangers to their children.

Chief Superintendent Gordon Mackenzie said: "What we have seen is young, unsuspecting children and teenagers using the internet in a variety of ways, through computers, phones or other platforms including games consoles with web connectivity, and being targeted by men who are effectively grooming and conditioning them for sexual purposes.

"The challenge now is to make sure children and teenagers using the internet are safe.

"There is no doubt the worldwide web has many attractions, is a powerful resource and increasingly young people use it to communicate in a way that adults struggle to understand or even know about.

"However, it also carries risks and criminals who seek to exploit young people will use it to their own means.

"Individuals who seek to use the internet to target young people have to know that the police and authorities are becoming ever-more sophisticated in stopping this kind of activity, tracing their electronic footsteps and delivering justice where offences take place."

The men caught in the operation were based in the UK and abroad, police said.

The 15 arrested have been charged with offences such as grooming and sexual assault.

Officers were assisted by agencies such as Interpol and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop).

Mr Mackenzie said: "We have taken steps which have resulted in a number of individuals now facing prosecution.

"Our action has also resulted in approximately 150 children who were both victims and potential victims being removed from harm's way.

"A number of youngsters who were at immediate risk were identified through our inquiries and swift intervention took place."

The Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland said removing children from online danger was a top priority for forces.

Lothian and Borders Assistant Chief Constable Iain Livingstone, who is in charge of child protection, said: "Scottish law enforcement agencies are working proactively to ensure that those who abuse and exploit children via the internet are brought to justice and children at risk rescued from harm.

"Those who attack and abuse our children think they can disguise their tracks.

"However we will use the very technology they exploit to catch them.

"Every contact via the internet leaves a trail which we will follow.

"Under Operation Alba, we will investigate, enforce the law and remove children from danger.

"It is a priority for the police service in Scotland to protect our children."

Details of the operation emerged on the day calls were made for popular networking sites Facebook and MySpace to provide greater protection for children who use them.

Ceop head Jim Gamble said he was disappointed the two internet giants had not adopted a panic button for children who fear they are at risk as their competitor Bebo has done.

The Ceop button enables users to report online abuse, bullying and illegal activity.