THE increasing use by paedophiles of social media – particularly via smartphones – has led senior gardai to appeal to parents to monitor their children's phones and computers
Rather than risk being caught by buying images off the internet, the growing trend among paedophiles now is to trawl the net for images which children have posted of themselves.
The head of the Garda Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Unit, Detective Superintendent John McCann, said the biggest area of interest for paedophiles here was in identifying and forcing or persuading children to post images of themselves via social networking sites. Paedophiles are trawling the net to identify children who have posted images of themselves.
Det Supt McCann said: "Young girls and boys may be on social websites and are sharing images of themselves. They think they are sharing the images with a boyfriend or girlfriend, but unfortunately, the images can be made available worldwide. They can then be threatened for more intimate images of themselves; this is behaviour we have seen."
He referred to the case of a woman who contacted gardai after finding disturbing images and texts on her 13-year-old daughter's phone.
"The mother wisely looked at her child's phone and found some images of her daughter, and that someone was in contact with her demanding further images. The child had supplied images of herself and her younger sister.
"He continued to threaten her, looking for other friends of this child to make contact and supply images. He constantly was harassing her, sending her hundreds of texts. After a six-month investigation we identified him as a 54-year-old man living in the city. He had been in contact with dozens of children. He had been using the internet and texting, using an unregistered phone.
"Our message to the paedophiles is that we have the tools and the means to identify you, and we are doing so on a daily basis.
"Our advice to parents is to monitor your young children's phone and internet use. Warn them about taking or supplying images, and make sure they are not in contact with strangers. Look for contacts and messages on their phones. And check the history of their internet use. Go on their social network sites and phones and look for photographs.
"We see children in their own bedrooms and bathrooms taking pictures of themselves. Some are trying to impress boyfriends but unfortunately these images can end up on the dark side of the internet. Behind each image these guys share there is a child being abused.
"We spend a lot of time on victim identification. If there are any clues as to where the child may be living we will use all our resources to find the child. In one action we and our colleagues in the PSNI visited every primary school here and in Northern Ireland.
"In one image we had reason to believe the child was being abused in Ireland. After an intensive nine-month investigation we identified that child. The child was five years old and was being abused by a relation. The abuser was subsequently arrested in this country, charged and convicted and is serving 10 years in prison. He was abusing the child and posting the images on the internet."
Det Supt McCann said it remains the case that the "vast majority" of abuse is carried out by men who are related to or within the social circle of the victims' families. "Parents should not be afraid about coming to us if they have any concerns," he said.
Det Supt McCann said the use of the internet by paedophiles is growing, due to the increasing use of social and other websites by children. To conceal their identities on the internet, the paedophiles have been known to use innocent people's unsecured broadband signals.
He pointed out that many people with broadband have still not password-protected their signal and paedophiles, aware of this, regularly "steal" innocent people's broadband. This could lead to investigators being led to the homes of people whose internet identity has been stolen for the use of sharing abuse images. "Secure your network and block access. If you do not know how to do it, get someone who does," he added.
He said the buying and selling of paedophile images has been reduced due to police operations around the world against companies who were peddling the material, but the amount of images being shared by paedophiles is increasing. He said there is a hierarchical or "pyramid" system of sharing sexual images.
"They only allow access to people and only share with people in their own network. We have seen images of Irish children from three years of age up. These are not only still images but video images of children being abused.
"It is rare for paedophiles to take children in public. Most abuse takes place at home or in clubs or in respect of some activity the child is engaged in, and nearly always by someone the child knows and trusts."
Detective Inspector Declan Daly of the Garda Paedophile Investigation Unit advised parents to speak to their children openly about internet use and advise them of the dangers. He said: "Be familiar with your children's internet use and phone use. Restrict access to the internet on your children's phones. Monitor their activity on social networking sites. Children should only allow people they've actually met to be their friends, and never agree to meet an online 'friend' in person without a parent's permission.
"Ensure children use privacy settings. Turn off location settings and do not disclose personal details like addresses, school or when parents are away. Tell children not to post photos on the internet that they'd be unhappy with their parents seeing. Be aware that once you put information and photos on the web, you no longer have control – it stays there forever. Ensure computer media are only used in open family areas."
He added that parents should be suspicious if children are hiding their phones or computers or "rapidly switching screens when you enter the room". Children should also be encouraged to talk about anything they encounter on the internet that makes them uncomfortable.
Later this year the Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan, who has increased resources for the Sexual Assault Unit, will roll out a national model of sex offender management called Sexual Offender Risk Assessment and Management (SORAM) with the Probation Service and the HSE. This will involve the setting up of specially appointed liaison gardai and committees of gardai, health and probation workers to monitor and manage people on the sex offender register.
For advice, parents can visit gardai.ie; internetsafety.ie; childline.ie; npc.ie; website.ie; or hotline.ie.