Dyfed-Powys Police has reported a 40 per cent rise in the number of online exploitation and grooming cases referred to them since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Police Online Investigation Team (POLIT) has seen a bigger increase in referrals over the past 12 months than in the four years since it was established.

Parents and carers are urged to be aware of who their children are talking to online – as well as directly asking young people not to believe that online “friends” are who they say they are.

As part of INTACT – the force’s education, engagement and enforcement campaign tackling a range of serious and organised crimes – this month, awareness is being raised around child exploitation, particularly online.

Detective Sergeant Shaun Davies said: “The increase in cases coming to us since the beginning of lockdown and social restrictions came into force is shocking.

“Online predators are taking advantage of children being isolated, missing their friends and needing company, and are preying on them more than ever."

DS Davies explained that online offenders will start conversations with dozens of children at the same time, using the same introductory line over and over again. 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.

“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.”

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.

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.

“Once that photo has been sent, it’s completely out of your control and could be shared anywhere and with anyone,” DS Davies said.

“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.

Dyfed-Powys Police works with the NSPCC, who will contact young people investigators have identified as potentially being in contact with a suspect, to offer guidance and support.

You can report an incident to Dyfed-Powys Police in the following ways:

Online: bit.ly/DPP101Online

Email: 101@dyfed-powys.pnn.police.uk

Call: 101

In an emergency, always call 999

Other avenues of direct support are:

Goleudy Victim and Witness Support: email goleudy@dyfed-powys.pnn.police.uk or call 0300 1232996

NSPCC: email help@nspcc.org.uk 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