COMPLAINTS of criminal behaviour on Twitter and Facebook have soared over the last four years, according to police figures.

Although almost unheard of in 2008, police in the North-east now investigate dozens of alleged crimes committed on social networking sites each year.

Across the country, the number of reported offences has increased by 780 per cent over four years, with 650 people being charged with a criminal offence in the last 12 months.

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Two North-East forces were among the 29 in the country to release figures for social networking crime following a request under the Freedom Of Information Act.

In 2008, Northumbria Police did not received a single complaint relating to social networking, while Cleveland recorded just two incidents. Over the last year, Cleveland recorded 57 incidents on Facebook and Twitter, while Northumbria recorded 39 alleged crimes. A total of 42 people across the two forces were charged with an offence.

Figures for Durham Constabulary and North Yorkshire Police were unavailable.

Most of the high profile offences have centred on racial abuse directed against the region’s football stars.

Earlier this year, a Sunderland fan from West Rainton, near Durham City, received a suspended jail sentence for racist Twitter comments directed against Newcastle United players while a university student received a community order for offensive remarks sent to radio pundit Stan Collymore.

Police have also investigated racially offensive Twitter messages to Magpies’ players Shola Ameobi and brother Sammy, while Sunderland winger James McClean received an alleged Twitter death threat following his decision not to wear a Remembrance Day poppy on his shirt.

However, police across the UK say the reported crimes include harassment and sexual offences, including grooming.

Chief Constable Andy Trotter, from the Association of Chief Police Officers, said the figures demonstrate a new challenge.

"It is important that forces prioritise social networking crimes which cause genuine harm, rather than attempting to curb freedom of expression," he said.

"We could end up in a situation where each constabulary needs a dedicated Twitter squad. In my opinion, that would not be a good use of resources in difficult financial times.

"We need to accept that people have the right to communicate, even to communicate in an obnoxious or disagreeable way, and there is no desire on the part of the police to get involved in that judgement.

"But equally, there are many offences involving social media such as harassment or genuine threats of violence which cause real harm".

The Crown Prosecution Service has recently introduced new guidelines on the threshold of behaviour for police intervention which is expected to result in fewer criminal charges being brought.