Only half of 101 Lancashire predators caught grooming children on the internet have been charged.
Shock data revealed through a Freedom of Information request shows dozens of youngsters have been contacted by paedophiles through social media, chat rooms and messenger services across Lancashire in the past five years.
And, after being befriended, the children have either met the offenders, sent or received explicit photos or been forced to watch sexual acts performed on a webcam.
In the 101 reported cases, 56 people were charged, 26 were never caught, seven were given a caution and two were given final warnings.
One case is continuing, two were closed, four faced no further action and, in two cases, prosecution was not possible.
Today Claire Lilley, head of child online safety at the NSPCC said: “The internet is a great tool for young people but it has grown quicker than our ability to regulate it and ensure it is used safely. Sadly, predators are quick to exploit new technology to take advantage of young people, and keeping children safe online is now the biggest child protection challenge of this generation.
“Alongside tough sanctions for those caught grooming we need to educate our children about staying safe on line.
“Simple tips like not giving out personal details, never sharing images you wouldn’t want to be shared more widely and reporting anyone that asks you do something you find uncomfortable can help keep children and young people safe.
“We know some parents feel confused by the internet – out of their depth, and with no control over who their children are talking to and what they share when they socialise online.
“Parents should play an active role in protecting children online by using the parental controls and software available to block inappropriate content, but equally important is speaking to children about what they do online and being an active parent in this part of their lives.”
I could go online right now and I could show you exactly how many people you could talk to if you were under-age. I don’t know Lancashire that well but if it is like anywhere else the problem is really seriousStinson Hunter, Channel 4 documentary maker
Lancashire Police currently have nine people working in the online abuse team and just two of the 101 cases involved an officer posing as a child to catch out the offenders.
The highest number of recorded cases was in 2013 when there were 25 reports. Last year, up to the end of September there had been 14 incidents reported.
The Freedom of Information request revealed that there were 53 cases of recorded as ‘sexual activity with a child under 16’, 18 cases of ‘sexual activity involving a child under 13 and 15 incidents of sexual grooming.
Furthermore there were fives cases of abuse of children through prostitution and pornography, four cases of a rape of girls under 16, one rape of girl under 13 and one rape of a boy under 16.
Officers recorded two cases of ‘other miscellaneous sexual offences’ and two cases of sexual assault on girls aged 13 and over. The NSPCC’s Claire Lilley added: “There’s lots of advice on the NSPCC website about starting these conversations.
“To find guidance and tips on talking to your children about this important issue visit nspcc.org.uk/shareaware.
“Anyone looking for advice about keeping children safe online, or concerned about the safety and welfare of a child, can contact the NSPCC’s 24-hour helpline on 0808 800 5000 or email email@example.com
“Children worried about online safety or any other problem can call the free, 24-hour helpline on 0800 1111 or get help online at www.childline.org.uk”
Lancashire Police was asked about the scale of the problem in the county and what they are doing to tackle it.
In a statement, Det. Supt Andy Murphy said: “We understand the concerns regarding the internet activity of paedophiles and subsequent dangers that they present to children and we can assure members of the public that the police act both covertly and overtly to identify online criminality on a daily basis, and work closely with partners to ensure that children are educated regarding the risks posed online.
“We would urge young people to exercise caution and be confident that they know who they are communicating with online.
“Be especially careful when giving out your personal details or when agreeing to meet someone – talk it through with your parent, guardian or a trusted adult.”
Stinson Hunter, who shot into the spotlight in a Channel 4 documentary on his work to expose paedophiles, believes the situation could be much worse.
He said: “The reported (figure) is 101 – I could go online right now and I could show you exactly how many people you could talk to if you were under-age. I don’t know Lancashire that well but if it is like anywhere else the problem is really serious.”
He added: “What do we know about the internet? We put all our stuff on the internet but what do we actually know about it?
“I remember the stranger danger campaign, everyone remembers them, everyone knows you shouldn’t talk to strangers – where’s the education for kids about what happens online?”
Further information on staying safe online is available at www.ceop.gov.uk, www.thinkuknow.co.uk and www.getsafeonline.org.uk.