Specialist undercover units hunting child abusers online made 1,700 arrests in one year – safeguarding over 1,000 potential victims from exploitation.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council Undercover Online (UCOL) Network was formed in 2017, with funding from the Home Office, to crackdown on predators using the internet to target vulnerable young people.

The specialist investigators work closely with partners including the National Crime Agency (NCA) to gather intelligence and pursue offenders.

Significant progress has been made with year-on-year growth in the number of arrests over the last five years related to illegal use of online platforms including the dark web.

Minister for Security, Tom Tugendhat said:

“The scale and severity of child sexual abuse committed online is appalling. We must be unrelenting in the pursuit of offenders.

“The Police’s Undercover Online Network is vital for delivering swift justice to predators and safeguarding vulnerable children.

“We will continue to send a message to child sex offenders that they cannot act with impunity online. They will be found, and they will be punished for their crimes.”

Security Minister Tom Tugendhat. Picture by Rory Arnold / No 10 Downing Street.

UCOL investigators use covert tactics to target dangerous offenders, focusing on a range of offences including grooming, peer-to-peer offending, live streaming, contact offences and historic or current familial offending.

From October 2022 to September 2023, officers in UCOL units across England and Wales made:

  • 1,665 arrests
  • 1,397 children safeguarded
  • 1,386 years custodial sentences

Offenders ranged from those who had viewed or shared indecent images online to those who had encouraged children to send them indecent images online, as well as those who groomed children via online sites and then arranged to meet them so that they could sexually abuse them.

National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead for Undercover Online, Assistant Chief Constable Alastair Simpson, said:

“The fight against child sexual abuse will never stop and these arrests highlight the focus and priority that not only police, but all of society must place on tackling these awful crimes.

“Policing has worked hard to develop a better understanding of child sexual exploitation and abuse in recent years. Specialist investigators work relentlessly on really tough cases every day to keep children safe and robustly pursue offenders.

“There are many examples of innovative police work to protect victims, and bring perpetrators to justice.”

In 2022/23, the NPCC:

  • Targeted offenders seeking to access the livestreaming of abhorrent material
  • Introduced a new team to research changing offender behaviour and to provide intelligence reports on online platforms and updates to the Home Office on future threats
  • Worked with the NCA, national partners, Home Office and industry to explore technological innovation which would improve efficiency and outcomes

In the coming months the NPCC will:

  • Increase understanding of the illegal use of  artificial intelligence in the online space
  • Implement the UCOL national strategic delivery plan across core areas of focus
  • Accelerate industry engagement to inform and influence moderation and monitoring of platforms

Mr Simpson added:

“Reports continue to rise, and we encourage anyone who is a victim of any kind of sexual abuse, or is concerned it is taking place, to come forward and report it. Our officers recognise the challenges many victims and survivors must overcome in making the often difficult decision to come forward and report offences, especially when they involve family members.

“This is not something that policing can tackle alone and we work closely with partners and charities to encourage victims to come forward.

“When victims do come forward I want to ensure they get the most professional, caring and compassionate service from us on every occasion. I am proud of colleagues who work relentlessly in this area to bring offenders of some of the most appalling crimes imaginable to justice.”

Wendy Hart, Deputy Director for Child Sexual Abuse at the National Crime Agency, said:

“The sheer volume of child sexual abuse (CSA) material available on the open web creates a permissive environment for individuals to develop a sexual interest in children. Offenders use online platforms to share their criminal activity, which in some cases can escalate into even more severe offending.

“The NCA works with policing to ensure a coordinated response to this threat. Our collective use of undercover officers has been crucial in gaining insight into offender behaviour and developing wider preventative measures.

“Education is also a key part of the law enforcement response. We aim to reduce the vulnerability of children and young people and encourage them to report abuse to trusted adults, the police or the NCA’s CEOP Safety Centre. Parents, carers and professionals can find information, resources and advice on protecting children from online CSA at www.thinkuknow.co.uk’

In one case a predator was engaged in sexual conversations online with the mother of a 9-year-old girl he believed he would sexually abuse. He made arrangements with the mother to abuse her daughter for payment.

He stated he would pay £200 when he first met her, then another £200 when he was able to have sex with her once the child got to know him better. He also stated he would buy the child a mobile phone which he already had £70 aside to pay for, and that he had already bought her a speaker as a gift.

He also mentioned buying a convertible car which the child would enjoy trips to the beach in and other outings, and that he would like the child to call him “Dad” once she was comfortable with him.

In 2022, he was arrested for arranging or facilitating the commission of a child sex offence. In his vehicle was a boxed Bluetooth speaker, two mobile phones, an overnight bag and Viagra. In 2023, he was sentenced to 8 years’ imprisonment with an extended 6-year license period.

In another case, in March 2023, a man engaged with an undercover online officer purporting to be a 14-year-old boy. From the outset, the man displayed a sexual interest in the child and wanted to meet to engage in sexual activity.

The man arranged to meet the 14-year-old boy, stating he would bring drugs with him. He was arrested at the meeting, in possession of ‘poppers’ as he had promised. He was charged and remanded into custody, later pleading guilty to a range of child sex offences and sentenced to 19 months’ imprisonment and 10 years on the sex offender’s register. 

Source: National Police Council / NCA

Photo credit: NPCC

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