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Grooming involves befriending children, mostly aged 11 to 15, to gain their trust, before luring or coercing them to send sexual images or videos of themselves, which are shared online on password-only group networks and websites, experts said.

“Grooming is the precursor phase,” said Hernan Navarro, head of campaign group Grooming Argentina, which educates parents and children about the risks of social media.

About 750,000 sexual predators worldwide are online at any given moment, the U.

S.-based International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children said last year, often grooming children for sexual abuse as a first step to enslaving them.

“It’s the gateway to more serious crimes like human trafficking.” After starting a seemingly innocuous online friendship, children sometimes go on to meet their virtual ‘friend’ in hotels, cafes or parks, which can lead them to being trafficked and sold online, according to campaigners.

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Instead of lurking in shopping malls and parks, predators who befriend and sell children for sex now hang out on social networks like Facebook and gaming sites, said experts fighting to stay one step ahead of rapidly-evolving criminal gangs.

And two-thirds of the world’s countries have no specific laws to combat online grooming of children for sex exploitation, while globally there are few convictions for the crime, said the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.

“Children don’t recognize themselves as victims,” said Grooming Argentina’s Navarro, adding that parents have a key role to play in educating their children about the dangers.

Campbell’s colleague, Julie, spends hours a day trawling through websites advertising sex and massage services, using cyber forensic tools such as facial recognition software and data scraping, to gather information about trafficking gangs. “We try and trace people through certain areas - is this person being moved from one city to another?

Sometimes the words ‘young’, ‘sweet’, ‘college’ and ‘new’ are red flags, other times it is the same telephone number or photograph being used in adverts in different U. ” said Julie, who declined to give her real name for security reasons.

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