A SPECIALIST squad of computer whizz crime fighters has pledged to hunt down the region’s internet predators, after online child grooming cases more than doubled in just one year.

Durham Police’s E-Safety Unit saw its caseload rocket from 14 in 2012 to 39 last year.

But Helen Murphy, strategic co-ordinator for the sexual violence strategy, said: “We are warning perpetrators that no matter how clever you are or what software you’re using, we are one step ahead and we will catch you.”

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Online grooming has rarely been out of the headlines since Darlington teenager Ashleigh Hall was murdered in 2009 by convicted sex offender Peter Chapman, who had posed as a 19-year-old on Facebook.

After Ashleigh’s death, The Northern Echo launched a Safety Net campaign to raise awareness of internet safety and make it a compulsory part of the school curriculum.

Today (Tuesday, February 11), Darlington College, where Ashleigh was a student, will be one of many schools and colleges across the country taking part in Safer Internet Day.

Durham Police’s E-Safety Unit, which is six-strong, was formed two years ago, replacing the Computer Crime Unit, and works closely with the national Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop).

There are three goals: to prevent online exploitation through educational work, to catch offenders and to support victims.

Miss Murphy said: “This offending ruins lives.

“We have had people in the cells with no previous convictions, a good job and a family life and they’re crying because their wife will leave them, they’ll lose their job – it’s their life over.”

She said the increase in cases showed children were more willing to speak out.

But it’s not just the numbers, the nature of offending is changing too.

While previously predators would spend a lot of time targeting one child, now they might send hundreds of emails or messages at a time and be explicit immediately, Detective Constable Andrew Hartley said.

In a recent case, one man had been speaking to more than 100 girls, some as young as nine.

To report abusive behaviour online, call Crimestoppers on 0800-555-111 or click Ceop’s ‘report abuse’ button.

If you are concerned about a child, call 0845-850-5010 in County Durham or 01325-346-867 from Darlington.