Police believe they have exposed a new grooming gang in London as officers warn widespread abuse is taking place across the country.
Detectives believe the number will grow as they appeal for others to come forward, after arresting three boys and three men in Stratford.
Police are already arresting around 420 men every month over child sexual exploitation across England and Wales, and the numbers continue to grow.
Detective Inspector Laura Hillier, of the Metropolitan Police’s sexual exploitation team, said an operation codenamed Grandbye was launched after the four victims came forward separately in Newham.
They had all been met by males at the McDonald’s on the Broadway in Stratford and been taken to different places where they were sexually assaulted, she told The Independent.
We think the scale of it is wider than initially thought the number of victims could increase.
Investigators say the Stratford Centre, which sits opposite Westfield and houses McDonald’s, is a “pick-up” point for grooming gang members seen congregating there with young girls.
They believe some are local to the area, but others have been drawn in from surrounding boroughs in northeast London by messages linked to criminal gangs offering gifts or money for drug running on social media.
Some girls felt they were in a relationship but others were there to either make money or do a job in relation to drugs, Ms Hillier said.
Other girls are just there to meet up, then find themselves becoming victims of crime.
Drugs and alcohol are frequently used by grooming gangs to incapacitate girls or coerce them into sex, with the criminality later discouraging victims from going to police.
There are several methods of grooming, with the best-known boyfriend model seeing an abusive relationship used to force victims into sex with others.
Children can also be trafficked, befriended online or – in the so-called party model targeted by groups of men who lure them to gatherings with offers of drinks, drugs, money and car rides.
In high-profile cases such as Rotherham and Rochdale, gang leaders have been much older than their victims, but police say peer-on-peer abuse by teenagers from the same school or area is far more prolific.
Ms Hillier said although older men are involved, the boys used as a hook are of a similar age to the teenage victims.
Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the National Police Chief’s Council lead for child protection, said it was “broadly representative of what’s taking place across the UK”.
I think grooming is taking place in towns and cities up and down the country, he told The Independent.
I think more children are being exploited because the volume of reports we are receiving just keeps on growing… and there are far more victims than there are offenders.
The same warning has been sounded by campaigners including Rotherham survivor Sammy Woodhouse, who said she was receiving “a lot of new complaints” from areas not previously known for grooming.
She is campaigning for a law that would prevent victims being prosecuted for offences committed under duress – a move supported by police trying to combat under-reporting.
Mr Bailey said much of the abuse was associated with county lines, which sees criminal gangs expand drug dealing from cities into rural areas frequently using children to run the contraband in efforts to evade police.
There is a really strong link between drug trafficking and the sexual exploitation of both girls and boys, he warned.
The ‘Muslim grooming gangs’ are just one model of child sexual exploitation and not the most prolific.
The most prolific is peer-on-peer abuse and one form of that is in a gang environment, with the exploitation of people who are wrapped up in drug trafficking and then abused.
There are no known common racial or religious characteristics with the Newham case and officials have warned that focusing on one kind of perpetrator will cause abuse to be missed.
It’s important to understand there is a real diversity between victims, perpetrators and how grooming happens, said Carly Adams, a specialist in child sexual exploitation at the Children’s Society.
She also believes abuse is happening across the UK, telling The Independent: I would be shocked to my core if there was a place not experiencing some form of sexual exploitation.
Any areas claiming they don’t have a problem should have a look at what they understand sexual exploitation to be.
The Children’s Society has specialist officers based in policing regions and is running prevention programmes around the country, including training security guards to spot grooming behaviour.
Other charities are bolstering police efforts to educate children about the risk, going into schools and encouraging parents to get “hands-on” about their children’s internet usage.
Police are also calling on companies to better monitor sites being used by groomers and advocating stronger age restrictions on extreme pornography linked to peer-to-peer sexual abuse.
The youngest suspects arrested in connection with Operation Grandbye are just 15 years old and the investigation continues.
A 34-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of rape and intent to supply cannabis and a 21-year-old was arrested and charged with cannabis possession.
Another 21-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of breaching bail conditions by being in the Broadway McDonald’s and a 16-year-old boy was arrested on suspicion of robbery.
One 15-year-old boy was arrested on suspicion of robbery and another for intent to supply drugs.
He was also served with a Child Abduction Warning Notice, which police say they are using in attempts to prevent sexual exploitation.
The notices are being issued to grooming suspects before any offence is proven, listing the potential victim’s name, age, photograph and a statement from parents or guardians saying they do not want the alleged abuser to approach them.
We find them a good disruptive tool,” Ms Hillier said. “It’s a warning and from that we have been successful in proving to courts that perpetrators know a child’s age.
Police have handed out the notices to several suspects in Stratford, while working to disrupt potential grooming by alerting with shop staff, giving out information and flagging girls at risk at multi-agency safeguarding meetings.
Ms Adams said that although awareness around grooming had improved dramatically, there was still a disparity in different areas of the UK.
We’re doing better but we could be doing more, she added.
The Metropolitan Police are urging people to look out for the following possible signs of exploitation:
• Young people who appear secretive by trying to hide where they are going and who they will be with;
• Young people who, although with peers, look uncomfortable or under duress;
• Adults befriending young people, including buying them food and drinks;
• Young people being picked up and taken to hotels, particularly at odd times of the day and night;
• Adults who frequently come into premises with different young people.
We cannot tackle this issue alone, Ms Hillier said. We need the assistance of the public, calling in any concerns which could provide officers with the opportunity to intervene before any harm occurs.
Anyone concerned is asked to call police on 101.