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Spotting the cyber predators

An Ealing school is testing a novel way of warning pupils about strangers in internet chat-rooms. Adi Bloom reports

JANE is 13 and lives in Northolt. She listens to Eminem, dislikes school and has two pet dogs.

Jane is also a 39-year-old man. As part of a new scheme to teach pupils about the dangers of internet chat-rooms, Dave Beeken, a police school-beat officer in Ealing, west London, is logging on to the internet disguised as a 13-year-old girl.

His role is to draw children into conversation, and see how readily he can extract personal information.

The scheme was piloted this week in Twyford comprehensive, in Ealing, where Year 8 pupils collectively participated in an online chat.

At the end of the chat, Jane suggested meeting in person: "Let's keep it a secret, though. My parents are a bit off about me seeing other people."

This, says Bruce Muldoon, the policeman conducting the session, is the type of behaviour of which pupils should be wary. There are simple rules for safe surfing (see separate box): stay in public chat-rooms and always let an adult know what you're doing.

"More and more, we're hearing crime reports with some internet connection," he said. "We need prevention, rather than reaction."

For the wired generation, it is a vital lesson. Twelve-year-old Rozzy Stoddart has previously exchanged telephone numbers with new chat-room acquaintances. "We met these twins on the internet and we wanted to be friends with them," she said. "We called them, and they weren't lying, but I think we were just lucky."

But Rozzy and her classmates claim to have seen through Jane's disguise immediately. "At the beginning, we thought it was real," said 12-year-old Seni Ogunmilade. "But her words were a bit weird. No one our age uses 'goodbye'. They'd say 'byesie' or 'laters'."

Paedophiles, says Dave Beeken, will spend hours monitoring chatrooms in order to ensure they do not make the same mistakes. "These people study what 13-year-olds are interested in. They use text talk."

The Safe Surfing initiative will be launched in all Ealing schools in January. As well as class work, the programme will include an evening of instruction for parents.

Internet safety, says Roz Henderson, citizenship co-ordinator at Twyford, is the modern version of the traditional stranger-danger lesson.

"It has made me think twice about using a chat-room. It would be good to develop it into a teachers' pack, like we do with drugs or sex education, so teachers can help kids to make informed decisions."


* Stay in public chat areas. Don't be alone in a chat-room with someone you don't know.

* Attachments should not be opened or files downloaded, unless you know and trust the sender.

* Fairy tales are easily told: remember that people are not always what they seem.

* Don't pass on your name, where you live, where you go to school, your date of birth or your photo.

* Let an adult know about anyone you want to meet. A first meeting should always be in the presence of an adult and in a public place.

* Never keep secrets.

* Never respond to anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. Save or print it, then log off immediately.

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