PAEDOPHILES are using computer games and apps to target vulnerable boys in Swindon, police have warned.

PCSO Alan Aldersley-Byrne, who tours Wiltshire schools and colleges offering anti-crime advice, said criminals sought out those with few friends or low self-esteem.

He urged youngsters in the county to tell a responsible adult, such as a teacher, if they had received suspect messages over social media apps or gaming sites: “It’s not an uncommon thing. It’s happening out there and we need to make them aware of that.”

Official figures released in the summer, showed that last year 128 reports were made over fears children in Swindon were being sexually exploited. In 2015 and 2016, a quarter of the 642 recorded offences involving a child victim had an online element. The average age of online grooming victims was 13.

Different aged children were being targeted in different ways by online criminals.

Primary school-aged children might be conned into clicking on a suspicious email link promising a free Star Wars toy: “We see a lot of issues where they’re clicking on email links they feel are genuine. That opens up the doorway for hackers to obtain information.”

PCSO Alan Aldersley-Byrne

As the youngsters grow older, crooks target them on the image-focussed apps they enjoy using, such as Instagram and Snapchat:

“They are the two main hitters where criminals can create a false profile and contacts, contact a young person and then get their mobile phone numbers and start obtaining information via WhatsApp.”

That information may range from the child’s real name to where they live.

Al said: “Children are posting pictures of themselves in their school uniforms and putting them up publicly. The undesirable people in society are seeing that and contacting them to ask for very inappropriate things.”

Chatting app HOLLA Live, which lets people talk over video chat to people around the world, was increasingly being used by children in the county.

He said: “Young people are being targeting to do certain things they wouldn’t do in front of mum and dad.”

Teenagers were being contacted over computer gaming website or social media. Boys were at particular risk from online paedophiles posing as young women and determined to persuade the teens to send explicit images.

In a high-profile case last year, 24-year-old Swindon gamer Robert Mulhern groomed a boy, 11, he met via an online Xbox gaming app. The paedophile, who had previous grooming convictions, got the boy’s 13-year-old brother to spank his younger sibling on Skype video chat.

Mulhern was jailed for five years.

Robert Mulhern

Official figures suggest cyber sexual exploitation of children is on the rise. In Swindon, the number of children believed to have been sexually exploited doubled between 2016 and 2017.

Wiltshire Police said in July they were devoting more resources to tackling online paedophiles.

“The number of reports that have come in over the last three years and number of emails I’m getting from colleagues asking for advice has increased by 20 to 30 per cent,” said Al.

The increase suggested young people were becoming more confident in reporting potential online grooming attempts. “Before I joined the youth engagement team, I had only heard of the odd cyber bullying text or sexting offence,”he said.

“Because we’re talking about these issues in the classroom, we’re getting the referrals through. It’s stopping further offences down the line.”

In the PCSO’s experience, attempts were being made to groom children as young as eight years old.

Whereas traditionally children in care are considered at greater risk from sexual predators, the internet makes it easier for paedophiles to contact children: “I’m seeing the children who have no connections with social services.

“Those are the children being targeted at the moment, because the ones doing it already have an idea they are not on the police or social services’ radar.”

He advised children worried about suspicious requests or messages they had received online to contact a teacher, police officer or Childline.

“If there are certain worrying phrases people are asking them online, they should keep all information as evidence.

“If it does get serious that’s something that would help us to investigate further.”

Parents should look out for warning signs like their children becoming more reserved, their phone constantly bleeping with a new message alert or if they’re spending more time in their bedroom.

“Ultimately, it’s about talking to your child,” he said. He recommended website for further online safety advice.