‘Meteoric rise’ of social media leads to surge in online crime across the region
- Credit: PA
The cloak of anonymity provided by the internet has led to a surge across the region of harassment, blackmail and other crimes involving social media.
Police warned that the ability to remain faceless empowered people to commit crime as it was revealed more than 4,000 offences involving the social network Facebook had been reported over the last three years.
Offences including harassment, blackmail, grooming and rape were recorded by police forces as having a connection to social media.
And today, on Safer Internet Day, Norfolk police urged people to consider their privacy when posting online.
Data obtained by this newspaper showed there had been 1,592 offences in Norfolk, where the key term 'Facebook' had been used in recording the crime, over the last three years.
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The instances have risen, from 380 in 2014, to 587 in 2015 and 625 in 2016.
The force's cyber security advisor Paul Maskall warned how some people could take advantage of the anonymity the internet gave.
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He said: 'With the meteoric rise and saturation of a variety of different social media applications, substantial levels of social and cultural change have come about with it.
'For most people, it is by way of inclusion for them in their own online culture and brings with it its own language, etiquette and creativity.
'However, with these applications, it also brings substantial outreach, separation and in cases, anonymity, which often empowers people to commit crime when they do not understand the consequences.'
He added that bullying, for example, was no longer something that was limited to the school playground or the classroom but could reach the victim day or night, anywhere.
In Cambridgeshire there was a similar picture, with 722 offences in total. In 2014, there were 183 offences reported involving Facebook, 234 in 2015 and 305 in 2016.
However in Suffolk instances dropped from a spike in 2015. From a total of 1,718 offences, 451 were recorded in 2014, 693 in 2015 and 574 in 2016.
Crimes involving other social networks were less common.
Across the three police forces asked, there had been just 151 crimes involving Twitter, 13 involving dating app Tinder, and four involving another dating app, Grindr.
In Norfolk, most instances involving the networks (845) fell under the violence against the person category.
This usually refers to a broad array of criminal offences which usually involve bodily harm, the threat of bodily harm, or other actions committed against the will of an individual. But other crimes included sexual offences, drug offences and burglary.
In Cambridgeshire, harassment was most commonly associated with social networks (108 offences). This was followed by sending letters with intent to cause distress or anxiety (106 offences).
Suffolk police did not provide a breakdown of the types of offences recorded.
Mr Maskell said in Norfolk, police officers were working hard to tackle the rise in crime involving social media.
He said: 'Social media and the pervasiveness of technology has of course presented new challenges to policing over the past few years, fundamentally changing the landscape of criminal investigations.
'However, with internal training and awareness for our officers and the introduction of techniques surrounding technology and digital evidence, crime involving social media should be part of regular policing as well as any other.'
But the force declined to comment on whether it was thought the penalties for crimes involving social media were tough enough.
Mr Maskell did encourage people to think of their privacy when sharing information online.
'Social networks are incredible for communication, recreation and business, it would be beyond unrealistic and impractical for most to abstain from something so fundamental to everyday living,' he said.
'However, people should be mindful that they are publishing information about themselves, their friends and family on an international medium. 'Always take a moment to consider your privacy, what you share and the consequences of it.'
One of the Norfolk cases involved Oliver Sell, from Swanton Morley, who last year received a desperate plea for money from a friend on Facebook.
The friend had some urgent bills to pay and asked then 20-year-old Mr Sell if he could spare £280 which she would pay back at a later date.
Mr Sell, who had two part-time jobs and had been saving for a deposit on a flat, agreed to transfer the money via the internet into his friend's account - his first attempt at online banking.
Little did he know that the 'friend' was actually a con artist who had hacked into the girl's Facebook account and was pretending to be the trusted pal.
Before he knew it he had transferred all his savings - £1,610 - into the scammer's account, after repeatedly falling for the lie that the money had not gone through.
At the time Mr Sell, a former Northgate High School and Dereham Sixth Form student, said: 'It was a huge shock especially as the person I was communicating with through the computer knew so much about my friend - I really thought it was her.
'It has completely messed up my plans and I am now ridiculously sceptical about every message or email I receive.'
His father, Tim - who reported the incident to the police - added: 'This money has been honestly earned and saved and has been stolen by some vile person praying on someone else's kind heartedness, hiding behind a computer,' he said.
In 2012, people planning to use fake Facebook accounts to deceive people were issued with a stern warning, after a Norfolk teenager admitted to creating an alter-ego to attract glamour photos from girls.
Thomas Utting, then of Otter Close, Salhouse, appeared at Norwich Crown Court after admitting to one charge of fraud and four charges of making indecent photos of children under-16.
He had created a fake Facebook account for his fictional photographer alter-ego, Josh Reinwood.
Handing Utting 80 hours of unpaid work and a 12-month community supervision order, Recorder Guy Ayers said: 'Had you have been a little bit older, you would have been going into custody.
'Courts will not tolerate this type of behaviour, as it seems to some extent girls who are under 16 or under 18 have to be protected from themselves.' Jonathan Goodman, in mitigation, said that Utting had been 'very naive' and explained that the alter-ego had been a release from bullying in the real world.
It was explained that a girl had sent Utting images of herself fully clothed before the situation escalated to images of her in her underwear and then topless.
Eventually one girl searched 'Josh Reinwood Photography' on Google and found a warning on a different photography website, warning girls to be aware that he was a not a real photographer.
A warrant was served by police and the images were found on Utting's computer, before he fully admitted what he had done in interview.
Utting said he had set up the fake Facebook account for Josh Reinwood about eight months before.
Chief Constable's message
Last week Norfolk Constabulary's Chief Constable Simon Bailey shared an image of himself to demonstrate the ability for it to be seen by a lot of people over a short period of time.
In just two hours the image was seen on social media over 70,000 times, with the final figure surpassing 1.5 million.
Chief Constable Bailey, the Lead for Child Protection, said: 'Once you have shared an image of yourself you lose control of it. The speed at which the image circulated and parts of the world that people sent us messages from has been significant. I strongly believe that education is the best way to prevent people from leaving themselves vulnerable. The police along with their partners, NCA-CEOP, the Safer Internet Centre and Childnet, are continuing to try and make the internet a safer place by informing people of the safest ways to use it.
'Remember, social media and the internet are tools. They are powerful but essential to daily life. Learn about their uses, good and bad, and use that knowledge to inform your decision making process.
'I hope my image being shared this many times serves as a healthy reminder that once you hit send you lose control of the content. Use this as an opportunity to speak with friends and family about their security settings and what they share.'