The internet menace: How to prevent your children from being caught in the paedophile's web


Last updated at 23:56 06 January 2008

The first thing you notice about Ellie Budd is how pretty she is. And then you realise the pervert who intercepted her on a day out with friends must have noticed the same thing too, surfing the net until he found the blonde 14-year-old's photo on her website - ogling it, messaging her and then moving in. For any parent who reckons the dangers of the internet are limited to the two dimensions of a PC screen, Ellie's tale is a wake-up call.

The Brighton schoolgirl came with her mother, Jane, to tell me her story, arriving outside Tate Modern - the same gallery where the paedophile made his move - on a slate-grey London day, with an icy wind whipping across the South Bank.

"My friends became aware of him," she said. The group of half a dozen friends had been touring Tate Modern together, and the same face kept appearing. "They looked around and told me: 'This man is following us'," she recalls.

"I thought it was probably just a coincidence. Then he said: 'Hi, you're Ellie Budd, aren't you?' He didn't explain who he was, but he touched me on my back and started rubbing it in a circular way and looking into my eyes.

"He told me not to be scared of him, and that made me more scared of him - I was startled, thinking: 'Oh my God, is this really happening to me?'"

What turned out to be happening was not a chance meeting at all. The seeds were sown weeks earlier when Ellie and her friend Olivia Lewis posted their details on the social networking site MySpace.

Without necessarily thinking all the repercussions through, they made their photos and some personal details - including their email addresses - available to the world.

Within a few weeks they were being messaged by an individual with the nickname Popcorn Puppy, who initially claimed to be a young girl.

They did not think much of it. Perhaps Popcorn Puppy was friendless, forging scores of virtual connections that would mean something one week and nothing the next.

But this "friend" showed more than a passing interest in their movements. One day Olivia invited Ellie to go shopping in central Brighton. When they came back, a message from Popcorn Puppy was waiting. "Did you have fun in town?" it said.

Unaware that they were not corresponding with another girl, Olivia messaged back: "How did you know where we were?"

And Popcorn Puppy said: "Oh, I was just browsing around."

It was not browsing - he had been keeping an eye on their internet conversations. And this was no teenager. The "puppy" was actually Ian Hunter, a 55-year-old predatory paedophile from West London.

Gradually, by monitoring their conversations and asking them seemingly harmless questions, he got more and more information on the girls, finally attempting to realise his warped fantasies by encountering Ellie at the art gallery.

"He was an old man," she said. "He was bald, he looked kind of pitiful. He said he had seen me on MySpace but at first I didn't realise he was some strange person off the internet. I thought he was maybe a relative, an uncle."

But then the penny dropped - they realised he must be Popcorn Puppy. Turning the tables, Ellie and a friend moved in on Hunter and snapped him on their mobile phone.

He thought they were just being friendly, but what they got was enough to send the police round to his flat. The officers had difficulty entering because so much pornography was blocking the way - videos and discs that included at least 20,000 images of children being abused.

Hunter was sent to prison for two years; six months for sexual assault on Ellie and 18 months for possessing indecent images of children.

Ellie, Olivia and her friends are streetwise, with caring, clued-up parents. That much was obvious from the conversations we had.

But, as we have found on TV's Panorama in the past few weeks, the web is bristling with so many villains that being streetwise in the real world is not enough to keep them at bay. On the virtual street, children need a different kind of armour.

The programme set out to investigate the way predators use the web to start relationships with children, and it was shocking to see how a child who goes online without protecting his or her privacy flashes like a beacon to a paedophile.

Just as the web delights youngsters with the freedom to roam and connect across all borders, so it gives paedophiles the thrill of being able to pop up in a child's bedroom and see them undress.

As a moderately literate computer user, I had thought perverts on the internet were busy surfing around to find disgusting photos - when, actually, webcam technology gives them the ability to make direct contact with your son or daughter and spy on them in real time as you watch television downstairs.

I know this because I met one of the predators. When I shook "Peter's" hand, I registered my immediate impression - this is not how anyone expects a paedophile to look. In his forties, Peter was tall, slim, and wore a good suit. He runs a successful business and has a wife and children.

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He was well-spoken and excessively polite, if a little nervous. No wonder - he used to spend his evenings searching for underage girls he could draw into sexual activity online and is now awaiting trial on charges still being investigated by police.

We were meeting because he said he wanted to "warn parents" just how much access computers give to the lives of their kids.

Here is how he operated; parents take note. Peter would milk social networking sites for contact details such as email addresses in the same way Ellie and Olivia were targeted.

Then he would make contact using the chat service MSN Messenger and try to become a listed "pal" of the child - particularly girls of about 13 - he was messaging. Children often want as many online friends as possible, so it was easy. Especially since Peter said he was 17.

Once he had established himself on his target's list of friends, he admits he turned the conversation to sex "fairly quickly", and says he suggested the children perform "graphic" sexual acts on their webcams while he watched - some complied.

Why target youngsters? "I don't know. There is something in the innocence of the children," he said, while denying that he was a paedophile.

He claims he would never have tried to meet his victims. "There's no doubt I was a danger to them in a moral sense. In a physical sense, no, because there was never any intention."

Peter, who has a previous conviction for possessing an illegal image of a child, is an odd mix. Somewhat arrogant, a bit too easy with his regretfulness, and probably using our conversation to ease his conscience, as if it proves that he is now back on the right side of the line.

To compound the impression, Peter then struck the pose of protective father, reminding me that he has children himself and saying he is desperately worried about the dangers they face online.

So here is the No 1 tip straight from the lips of a predator: don't allow your child to be online in their bedroom with a camera. Get the computer where you can see it.

Peter admits that if he connected with a child by webcam and "saw a dining-room table" in the space behind them, he would pull out of the conversation - realising a parent could walk past at any time.

It was an unpleasant meeting, during which I had to fight the urge to show an unprofessional level of repugnance. As the father of two girls under four, I have to hope that technology provides them with better defences against perverts by the time they start using it.

But I also know people will always be able to take advantage of a child's natural curiosity and desire to explore. What parents have to understand - and quickly - is that the online world is not confined to the room the computer is in.

A paedophile who gets your child's details can start texting them on their phone, arrange a meeting, and attack.

And it can happen quickly.

In a textbook example of the rapid escalation paedophiles seek, a 63-year-old man from Bromley called Brian Page started a conversation with a girl he thought was 12 and within a couple of weeks invited her for sex in a hotel with the phrase: "You can have it any time."

Unhappily for Page - and luckily for the rest of us - the girl he thought was 12 was actually a strapping 6ft policeman working for the Met's Paedophile Unit.

The man who leads it, Detective Sergeant Nick Duffield, said: "When we arrested him in his car on the way to the hotel, we found children's underwear, condoms, a camera to record the event, and he'd even made a reservation at a local hotel."

Page was convicted of grooming a child for sex and went to jail for a number of years.

Nick, himself a father, also has good advice for parents. "I have an agreement in my house. I've got two teenage girls of my own, and I said: 'By all means have your personal profile accounts, MySpace and so on, but expect me at some time to wander up and say: "Describe that person you're talking to, their physical appearance as if they're standing in front of you."

I want to know that you know the person, that you've met them and it's not a friend of a friend, it's not a long-distance cousin of the girl down the road - it needs to be somebody you know personally.'"

And he adds: "Never, ever post personal details such as names, addresses, email addresses, school details or photos online."

As part of our investigation we wanted to see what happened if a teenager broke all the rules. The results were stomach-churning.

A researcher in the Panorama office, who is in her twenties, invented a profile and posted the details onto three social networking sites. The profile and accompanying photo were not even remotely suggestive.

Jane Brown said she was 14 and her interests were Justin Timberlake, the Sugababes, dancing and swimming.

I didn't expect much to happen. After all, there are millions of youngsters and surely not enough online predators for them all to be at risk?

But within two weeks, four or five men, who didn't even attempt to disguise their age, were making contact with our "14-year-old", and all seemed to have sex on their minds.

She was sent photos of men posing naked and reams of lurid messages, the politest of which asked her: "Hey babe, wanna see me strip for you?" and went on to add: "Wanna tell me what to do with myself while watching me on kam (webcam)?"

One told Jane: "Be my daughter and I'll listen to everything you have to say."

Another looked to establish a confidence in ungrammatical webspeak: "Your confused because no one listens to you janey so I'll be the guy you can trust." Another asked Jane to do her "sexual homework", wanted her "bra size" and so on.

There was pretty much no limit to the subjects (and body parts) raised; there is only a limit to what I can set down in a family newspaper.

In the end, we were so disturbed by the messages - because some of the men involved clearly present a real danger to children - that we handed our computer to the police. As a result there was an arrest just before Christmas, and we will follow any court action closely.

But it has taught me a lesson. Far from finding computers forbidding, I am totally at ease with them. But that is a danger, too. I now understand that I have not quite grasped quite how cleverly they are being used by the sickest in our society.

Children are famed for being ahead of their parents in their knowledge of the online world - but that only leaves them out on their own and unprotected. So parents need to run to catch them up; before the monsters take flesh and become real.

• Panorama: One Click From Danger will be shown on BBC1 at 8.30pm tonight.