Lancashire Police are investigating after sick images of child sexual abuse were allegedly swapped on a popular online chat site.
The distressing messages were apparently seen by a local volunteer who has now reported the concerns to Lancashire Police, who are now investigating.
Parents are also being warned to check their children’s internet devices and accounts.
Charlie Anuska, from Thornton near Blackpool, said: “I work with an online paedophile hunting team and recently a website – Chat Avenue – has been brought to our attention.
“This is a chat room in which people are exchanging indecent images of children, asking for sex with children. We have made the Internet Watch Foundation and police aware and have reported it, but this could take some time to get taken down.
“We want to make parents aware of this site and get them to check their children’s devices.
“It literally takes two seconds to set an account up and it can be so dangerous.”
No one was available for comment from Chat Avenue, which describes itself as a chat site “suitable for everyone including adult, teen, single, gay, or lesbian users”.
The site’s guidelines say: “All of our chat rooms are staffed with online moderators to keep your visit clean, safe, relaxing and fun.
“However, we are unable to view private messages.
“We respect everyone’s privacy and that is of major importance to us.”
With sites and apps allowing users as young as 13 to join, many teens have started to date or socialise online.
But even though some sites use suspicious keyword detection and different ways to check people’s identity, it’s still virtually impossible to know if a person is being truthful about their name, age and gender.
This week, Jeremy Wright, the Secretary of State for digital, culture, media and sport revealed the UK government is to ask dating apps Tinder and Grindr what measures they are taking to ensure child safety and age verification, after claims of exploitation using such sites continue to fuel debate – with more than 30 cases of child rape nationally since 2015 linked to victims who had managed to evade age checks on dating apps.
In Lancashire alone, police figures show 29 children under 16 were deemed victims in reports linked to crimes where either online dating or dating apps such as Tinder, Kick or Grindr in Lancashire between 2012 and 2017, were named in the crime log.
While the majority of users on such sites and apps are genuine law-abiding people, there is no doubt important and difficult discussions need to be had.
The Post previously raised concerns online dating apps have become a “paedophile’s playground” after an investigation in which offenders tried to strike up relationships with a reporter who was posing as a teenager.
In 2017 a Post reporter posed as a 15-year-old schoolboy on Grindr – a gay dating app – and was sent lewd pictures and messages despite telling the prospective ‘dates’ his age.
It took a matter of minutes to create a fake email account on the same app with a bogus name and age, and use it to set up a fake account as a shy confused teen.
In under an hour six men had already made contact, one sending a picture of himself in his underwear.
After three days there were 60 messages in the inbox. Several of the men persisted even after learning the ‘app user’ was 14 or 15, and at school, while others sent pictures of their private parts. On another site it took just seconds to identify 44 Lancashire children, aged just 13 and 14, who had posted their profiles on the site, along with several other Lancashire children aged 15 to 16.
“No Whispers” is a free Lancashire based project allowing volunteers to give training and awareness in Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) and social media, and is supported by Preston Community Safety Partnership and UCLan.
Expert Karen Livesey, of C.A.T child sexual exploitation awareness training, said: “I agree strongly the Government needs to challenge dating apps to have a moral responsibility and ensure interactive tests block children and young people.
“I also think parents and carers have a clear responsibility in providing an interface of protection.
“Helping children and young people talk and share any concern or worry, no matter how small, is crucial in addressing early signs of exploitation and abuse and also important in building a positive relationship.
“Adults often assume children and young people have knowledge and know what to do but often that is not true. 2020 will see the Government bring the statutory Sex and Relationships Curriculum for all schools and this will dramatically influence the education and resilience of children and young people - but that is not now.”