Social media sites Facebook and Twitter have been linked to nearly 1,000 crimes in Lancashire.
In three years, police in the county have seen a huge surge in crimes committed online, with a total of 957 linked to social media websites.
Offences ranged from harassment, sexual grooming and threats to murder – all connected to Facebook or Twitter.Police chiefs today said the figures demonstrated a new and increasing challenge – but warned the county’s online criminals “we will get you”.
Lancashire’s police and crime commissioner, Clive Grunshaw, said: “Offenders should know they cannot hide behind Twitter and Facebook. Where a crime has been committed, Lancashire Constabulary will do all it can to trace and prosecute the offender.”
Threats to murder, sexual grooming, fraud and harassment are just some of the 957 alleged crimes committed on social media sites in Lancashire.
Today police leaders say the huge number of crimes linked to Twitter and Facebook across the county are putting “considerable additional demand” on the authorities.
Despite being unheard of a decade ago, figures show that between 2010 and 2013 more than 900 crimes involving social media sites were reported to police in Lancashire.
In 2012 the case of Matthew Woods from Chorley went viral after he posted offensive remarks about missing five-year-old April Jones.
In another case, friends Karl Manley, 28, from Heysham, and Stefan Johnson, 22, from Lancaster, were cleared of encouraging looting. The pair wrote “PC World Lancaster, 7.30pm. Let the looting begin. Could do with a new laptop!!!!” after watching widespread disorder in London on television.
And in a another trial, Warren Calvert, 19, of Heysham, was cleared of similar offences when he issued an invitation on Facebook to start a riot last August.
Today Lancashire Police and Crime Commissioner Clive Grunshaw said: “It’s no secret that the growth of cybercrime, in all forms, is having a significant impact on the police service. Overall crime in Lancashire is continuing to fall, and it is concerning we are seeing an increase in cybercrime involving Twitter and Facebook.
“At a time when Lancashire Constabulary has fewer resources and less money, this is an area which is placing considerable additional demand on the force. However, we all know policing has to adapt and change and I am committed to making sure that happens in Lancashire.
“That is why I am prioritising addressing the issue of online-related crime, and ensuring resources are protected. It is an area which requires focus and I will ensure that happens to keep Lancashire’s residents safe.
“Offenders should know they cannot hide behind Twitter and Facebook – where a crime has been committed Lancashire Constabulary will do all it can to trace and prosecute the offender.”
In 2010 there were 160 crime reports linked to Facebook, rising to 293 last year.
The number of Twitter complaints has gone from zero in 2010 to 10 in 2013.
In total, over the three year period there were 361 reports of harassment, 36 public order offences, 10 cases of fraud by false representation and 12 threats to murder.
The figures were revealed through a Freedom of Information Act request asking ‘How many offences your force has recorded where the key term Facebook or Twitter has been used.
A spokesman for Lancashire Police said: “For many people, social media and the internet has become a big part of daily life and we would encourage people to use it and enjoy it but to do so safely.
“It’s important to remember that people you meet online may not be who they claim to be. “Keep your personal information safe and don’t share details such as your address or date of birth and certainly don’t arrange to meet someone you have only ever met online.
“Unfortunately we have seen over recent years that the internet has become an ever increasing method by which offenders seek to meet, groom and then sexually exploit young people, as well as committing other offences like harassment and stalking, and we remain committed to targeting these offenders and bringing them to justice.”
Steven George-Hilley, from campaign group Parliament Street said: “The Government must do more to tackle this new wave of crime.
Matthew Woods from Chorley was sent to prison for posting offensive remarks about five-year-old April Jones on Facebook
Woods, who was 19 at the time, was sentenced to 12 weeks in a young offenders institute.
Magistrates said his remarks were so ‘completely abhorrent’ they had no choice but to hand him a custodial sentence.
He admitted posting the four remarks, which also included references to Madeleine McCann, on Facebook.
He later successfully appealed against his sentence at Preston Crown Court, having claimed the 12-week term was excessive and that magistrates should have given him credit for his guilty plea.
The term was reduced to eight weeks.
EXPERT VIEW BY DR JO BRYCE
Knowing exactly how much crime is committed over the internet can be difficult - because people are not always aware they are a victim of crime, according to a top academic.
Dr Jo Bryce who is lecturer in psychology at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) says people need to be more aware, an be careful what personal information they make available.
She said: “For example if you have been a victim of some kind of identity theft and information is stolen from your Facebook account, the victim has to be aware where they may have got the details from. It’s a huge challenge. The first thing is to be very careful about the information you put on Twitter and online profiles. Facebook profiles can be used, if they (criminals) can guess your date of birth, if you have children or pets they can guess passwords.”
But she says that the crimes taking place over the internet, are not new, people just have another, wider platform.
““Bullying and harassment is not a new phenomenon, she said, “There are a lot of activities in the online world that are criminal, a lot of them exist in the offline world. Technology gives a wider audience, you can respond quicker, you can’t see the person. The technology is an enabler.”
Dr Bryce also says people need to know of the boundaries and legal issues when it comes to posting, she admits people don’t think before they post or think it is ‘banter’.
“There are boundaries in the online world that can be crossed,” she said, “If they are crossed you could see yourself in court.”