Sussex Police adapts as lockdown creates ‘cyber-paradise’ for paedophiles and stalkers

Millions of people confined to their homes in lockdown created a ‘cyber-paradise’ for scammers, stalkers, paedophiles and organised crime, according to Sussex’s Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC).

Tuesday, 28th July 2020, 4:06 pm
Updated Tuesday, 28th July 2020, 4:15 pm

Katy Bourne, who has overseen Sussex Police since 2012, said a renewed reliance on technology has bred a cohort of tech-savvy criminals.

“One thing that criminals are very good at is adapting,” she said.

“All those who weren’t adept at using technology pre-lockdown have now learned and those who already knew how to use technology are even better.”

Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne

Mrs Bourne said there had been an ‘exponential rise’ in online exploitation of children during lockdown.

Online agencies blocked at least 8.8million attempts to access videos and images of children suffering sexual abuse in a single month, she said, and the National Crime Agency estimates around 300,000 people currently pose a threat to children in the UK.

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Reports of stalking have also risen by around 26 per cent as cyber-criminals with too much time on their hands subjected their victims to online harassment.

Mrs Bourne has been a victim of stalking herself and knows only too well the effects of the ‘insidious’ crime.

She said police have had to become more flexible in tracking down online criminals, who could be anywhere in the world.

“Lockdown has had a lot of negatives, but there have been positives – it’s made us become more creative in how we use technology and that can only be a benefit,” said Mrs Bourne.

The National Crime Agency oversees investigations but communication has been improved between forces.

Sussex Police sits in a regional team alongside Surrey, Hampshire and Thames Valley forces that pick up investigations locally.

Technological innovations include a Sussex Police chat room for victims of domestic abuse and stalking to seek support. Within the first week of it being launched, it received 15 new users.

Reports of domestic abuse actually fell during lockdown with victims unable to escape to report their abuse, said police.

Sussex Police was unique in setting up a service where victims are sent a link that has no sign it relates to the police.

The victim can click on the link and join a chat with an officer. Once the chat is finished, the message is deleted and there is no trace left on the device.

Mrs Bourne said the technological lessons learned could be continued post-lockdown. Locally, lockdown has been a chance for the force to clamp down on drug crimes and county lines dealing. Not only did empty streets mean people needed a ‘good excuse’ to be moving around, said Mrs Bourne, but residents were more vigilant and eager to report strange activity.

While there were some successes during lockdown, reports of anti-social behaviour surged as people breached guidelines.

In a speech to the Association of PCCs earlier this month, Mrs Bourne warned: “For every police officer who’s issuing a fixed penalty notice or dispersing large crowds that’s one less officer available to arrest drug dealers, sex offenders and shoplifters.”