ONLINE cops trying to snare sex offenders say they saw an increase in referrals and reports of suspicious online activity during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Officers from the specialist Regional Organised Crime Unit working in the West Midlands arrested 27 suspects during the first three months of lockdown as internet predators took advantage of children spending more time online while away from school.

Detective Inspector Stephen Wills, from the West Midlands Regional Organised Crime Unit (ROCU), said police also safeguarded 33 children they believed were being groomed online and he added: "We expect to see a further increase in reporting to us as we emerge from lockdown, children return to school, and more offences or suspicious activity come to light.”

The team of officers - who are active on social media, instant messaging apps and other online platforms looking for people seeking to groom children online and to intercept them before they’re able to meet youngsters - arrested 110 people for child sexual offences between July 2019 and June 2020.

A total of 45 have already been convicted in court and jailed collectively for 130 years while others await trial or remain under investigation.

Under an operation codenamed Project Atari, which launched in 2017, the team has arrested more than 250 people believed to be trying to groom children over the internet.

So far 124 have been convicted in court and jailed for a total of 314 years.

Det Insp Wills said: “Vigilante ‘paedophile hunter’ groups have emerged in recent times and there seems to be a perception police are not doing this work – but that’s absolutely not the case. We’ve been active online, working alongside social media providers, and protecting children for many years and with great success.

“Project Atari’s intention is to safeguard children in the West Midlands but the very nature of the internet and online interactions means targets can be anywhere in the country, indeed anywhere in the world.

“We have sent evidential packages to almost every police force in the UK and law enforcement agencies in Europe and beyond.

“Of the 252 people arrested, 85 were offenders looking to harm children in the communities of West Midlands, West Mercia, Warwickshire and Staffordshire.

“I am very proud to say our team has directly safeguarded 413 vulnerable children over the last few years and have indirectly safeguarded approximately 10,000 children that the offenders had direct access to either through the internet, through their work, social life or family.”

Det Insp Wills said online exchanges with offenders "can have a devastating effect on the lives of victims" and he added: "We want to create an environment of disruption, fear and apprehension among people who operate online to sexually abuse children.

“But everyone has a role to play. We’d ask parents to be intrusive in their children’s online activity."

He urged people to contact police on 101 or via Live Chat on the force website if they have suspicions a child is being groomed or if they are concerned about someone’s online behaviour, or suspects they are grooming children.