Undercover online police snare 1,600 suspected child abusers

Undercover online police have caught hundreds of predators, police chiefs revealed  (Getty Images)
Undercover online police have caught hundreds of predators, police chiefs revealed (Getty Images)

A national network of undercover police operating online have snared more than 1,600 suspected child sexual abusers in the last year, police chiefs have revealed.

Police posing as children and other internet users are helping law enforcement capture hundreds of predators, including an offender who arranged to pay a mother in order to abuse her daughter and a groomer who told a nine-year-old he would murder her family if she did not send explicit pictures.

The tactics have led to 1,665 arrests, safeguarding almost 1,400 children between October 2022 and September 2023, the National Police Chiefs Council revealed. Abusers were sentenced to a total of 1,386 years in prison in the same period.

Arrests were up from 1,362 arrests the previous year, between April 2021 and March 2022.

Assistant chief constable Alastair Simpson, said law enforcement had built a “genuine national network” since the NPCC Undercover Online (UCOL) Network was formed in 2017, with undercover online units operating in every regional organised crime unit in the country.

He warned abusers: “Our undercover officers could be anywhere at any time and could be investigating you this very second. They are in your world. They know how you would seek to hide from children and get away with it. They know how you operate and there’s nowhere for offenders to hide.”

“There are really no depths that someone will not go in order to achieve their aims,” Mr Simpson added. “Somebody was speaking to a really young child under ten and was essentially threatening to murder her family unless she shared images and sexual acts online.”

Undercover online tactics led to 1,665 arrests last year, police revealed (PA Wire)
Undercover online tactics led to 1,665 arrests last year, police revealed (PA Wire)

Other recent successes include a predator who said he would pay a mother £200 to meet her nine-year-old daughter and a further £200 to have sex with the child.

He also mentioned buying a convertible car which the child would enjoy trips to the beach in and other outings, and that he would like the child to call him “Dad” once she was comfortable with him.

In 2022, he was arrested for arranging or facilitating the commission of a child sex offence and later sentenced to eight years in prison, with an extended six-year license period.

In March 2023, a man engaged with an undercover online officer purporting to be a 14-year-old boy.

The man arranged to meet the boy – where he was arrested and later admitted to a range of child sex offences and was sentenced to 19 months’ imprisonment and 10 years on the sex offender’s register.

Wendy Hart, deputy director for Child Sexual Abuse at the National Crime Agency, said an annual intelligence assessment for 2023 estimated there are 680,000 and 830,000 adults in the UK who pose some degree of risk to children.

The use of undercover officers has been “crucial” in gaining insight into offender behaviour and developing wider preventative measures, she said.

Officials are also focused on responding to threats from emerging technologies – including artificial intelligence – which could be used to generate child abuses images or even be deployed to groom or coerce children more effectively.

“AI represents another way for people to offend and it will enable greater levels of offending, in our opinion,” Ms Hart added.

Internet Watch Foundation chief executive Susie Hargreaves OBE fears that end-to-end encryption on technology platforms will only make it easier for offenders to operate undetected.

“The protection of children must be a priority for all and we need to be working together, across sectors, to secure a future where children and others can go online safely,” she added.

Minister for Security, Tom Tugendhat, said the scale of child abuse online is “appalling”.

“We must be unrelenting in the pursuit of offenders,” he said. “The Police’s Undercover Online Network is vital for delivering swift justice to predators and safeguarding vulnerable children.

“We will continue to send a message to child sex offenders that they cannot act with impunity online. They will be found, and they will be punished for their crimes.”