British paedophiles are paying to watch the live streaming of child sex abuse after conducting overseas “fact-finding” trips to identify the vulnerable, protection experts said on Monday.
The use of live-streaming services like Skype to screen abuse has been identified as the main emerging threat of child sex crimes as specialist officers revealed a two-fold increase to 70,000 in the number of indecent images and videos being shared between abusers in 2012.
Abusers are making contact with vulnerable families and criminals in poor countries during holidays abroad and preparing the ground for watching abuse via webcam when they return to Britain, according to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP).
Experts said there was no evidence of a widespread organised trade in the images to make money, with the deals done mostly by individuals. They said the threat has emerged because of the increased global use of high-speed internet and wide differences in income between British abusers and the world’s poorest.
The organisation said that the trend – still only at a low level – has highlighted the international nature of the threat and the challenge to law enforcement from cross-border illegality. A surge of visitors and high levels of child poverty also raises concerns of abuse surrounding the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, it said.
In a startling assessment of the extent of child abuse, the centre has estimated that 190,000 children will be abused by strangers or family members other than their parents before they reach the age of 18. It estimated that about 50,000 people in the UK were involved in downloading and sharing indecent images of children in 2012.
Experts said they had also identified a change in the technique of “online grooming”, with stalkers casting their net wide to identify potential victims on social media sites. The centre said offenders were spending less time on grooming before a rapid escalation of “threats, intimidation and coercion” to persuade children to perform sexual acts online, or arrange physical meetings.
Police said they were concerned about the increase of indecent image sharing, after identifying a link to more serious abuse of children. Mark Bridger, the killer of five-year-old April Jones, had a library of child abuse images.
Bridger’s trial earlier this year heard that 65 of those images were of a “criminal standard”. He had also stored the photographs of other child murder victims on his computer, including Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, the two girls killed in Soham. Stuart Hazell, who pleaded guilty this year to the murder of schoolgirl Tia Sharp, was also found to have a library of indecent images.
Peter Davies, chief executive of CEOP, said: “Our assessment shows that, sadly, there are still too many children at risk and too many people who would cause them serious harm.”
The centre also raised concerns over the use of the “hidden internet”, encrypted forums that allow abusers to cover their tracks more easily when going online to find images of children.