POLICE believe child grooming crimes involving the use of social networking sites are on the rise – but are also being reported and detected more. And they think education is the key to tackling the menace.
Detective Inspector Simon Snell, head of Cornwall police's child exploitation unit, said: "It is more common than anyone believes, with quite a high prevalence of offenders using the internet to groom children. We see it day in and day out. This (Karim case) could be the tip of the iceberg.
"It is one of many investigations we have going at the moment on the internet ... all of different complexity and taking a lot of time to investigate. Computers are getting bigger and it can take two or three months to examine one.
"Cornwall is no different to anywhere else. It is prevalent all over the country. But with a few safety measures, we can make it even more safe. The internet is such a great place and we tend to concentrate on the bad.
"Sadly, parents only engage in internet safety after something's happened and the horse has bolted."
He said offenders tend to be white men, aged about 30, with most victims between 12 and 15, but can be much younger. He had seen figures stating that 86 per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds use Facebook profiles.
Figures obtained by the West Briton from the Crown Prosecution Service showed a spike of 27 grooming charges in 10 individual cases in Devon and Cornwall in the financial year 2010-11, with a total of 58 (27 cases) since 2007. They did warn that grooming was often difficult to pin down as a charge.
Analysis showed most victims were aged 13 to 15, offenders were men, who pleaded guilty – presumably because of the electronic records of their actions – and mostly used Facebook and MSN, or text messages in cases where they knew their victims.
Earlier this year police posed as 13-year-old 'Holly' to lure predatory paedophile Stephen Robert Brown, 29, of Canfield Terrace, Redruth, to a rendezvous in Newquay after discovering he had used the internet to groom a girl of 14 into having sex.
He pleaded guilty at Truro Crown Court to five charges of sexual activity with a child and inciting a girl to have sex and was jailed for six years.
Judge John Neligan said: "This case represents yet another example of the dangers to young girls of internet chat rooms.
"The sooner Parliament legislates against it, the better for young girls and the safer they will be."
Last December Darren Saunders, 23, of Lander Court, Truro, was jailed for a year after grooming a 13-year-old girl online and having sex with her.
Detective Constable Nick Parr, from the child exploitation unit, said groomers "boost children's self-confidence, make them feel wanted and special, take advantage of their age, vulnerability, lack of confidence, naivety. Eventually some, like Jahangir Karim's victim, meet with them and end up being abused".
The result "gives a child a lack of self-esteem – they feel guilty, violated, feel the trust they gave to someone on the internet has been betrayed and can never trust someone again in that way.
"They feel rejected and dejected."
The young person can also tend to hide their activities from adults. "They can exit or change screens as soon as a parent enters the room. Schools and parents have to be educated to prevent the vulnerable being abused by manipulation by offenders who make them feel wanted, like they have someone to talk to.
"Teens are inquisitive and use the internet to look at sexual things and can get duped into the wrong area so easily – click on the wrong thing, get a friend they don't know. That person starts talking, they think they're a friend, and that person gets gratification out of it.
"Police have got ways and a record of capturing people doing this, but education is the main thing. Children don't realise how dangerous the internet is.
"It's part of what grooming is – they make them feel lovely, worthwhile and abuse them.
"Parents and children need better education on the internet. It is happening and will happen but there is a difference in the age gap. The younger generation understands it better.
"Parents are naive to the dangers. When you've got phones and iPods and iPads they are so vast and only have to be in a café and you're on the internet.
"We will catch people who do this and keep catching them because it is of great concern to the public. Children and the vulnerable should be protected. My job is to safeguard children and it's not a nice thing to do, but the gratification is knowing you have locked up someone who is a danger and can't offend again for a certain time."
Detective Inspector Snell added: "A lot of work is being done with schools to introduce internet safety into the curriculum. It is definitely overdue. Another key is educating parents to not put their heads in the sand. Everyone's using it."
Sharon Copsey, NSPCC head of region for the South West, said: "Whilst the internet can be a great resource for young people, it is vital that they are encouraged and supported to follow advice on internet safety. Parents and carers should talk with their children about online dangers and make sure they know how to block someone online and report inappropriate or abusive content to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre.
"If you are an adult and you have concerns about the safety of a child, you can call the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000. If you are a child and you are worried about your safety online, you can call ChildLine on 0800 1111."