Evidence obtained by citizen sting operations organised by ‘paedophile hunters’ was used to charge 150 suspected sex offenders last year, but police urge the groups to stop.
Data supplied by 27 out of 43 police forces in England and Wales showed a greater than seven-fold rise in the use of evidence provided by paedophile hunters from 20 in 2015 to 150 in 2017, according to a Freedom of Information request made by the BBC.
Of the 27 police forces that responded, almost half (47 per cent) of cases where adults planned to meet a child following sexual grooming used evidence from such sting operations last year.
Paedophile hunter groups operate by setting up online “decoys” where members pretend to be children and wait to be contacted by adults. They will then converse with the predators through the decoy accounts and arrange to meet with the individuals in public – often live streaming the sting operation – and call the police once contact is made.
There are believed to be up to 75 paedophile hunting groups currently active in the UK.
— Breitbart London (@BreitbartLondon) January 20, 2018
A “decoy” from the group Predator Exposure, calling herself “Sarah”, told the BBC: “They [the targets] are always made aware of the child’s age at the start of the chat, so there’s no misconception about how old the child is.”
“We class ourselves as child protectors – if a potential predator is talking to my decoy, they aren’t talking to a real child, that’s the way I look at it.”
“I set a new decoy up one night, by the next morning I had had 180 friend requests, mostly from men,” Sarah said.
“We’re only touching the tip of the iceberg, it’s right across social media. Even if we just take 20 out, those 20 aren’t going to be child rapists.”
However, Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the head of the National Police Chiefs’ Council on child protection, wants the hunters to stop their sting operations accusing them of taking “unnecessary risks”.
Illegal Immigrant Who Turned up to Meet 12-Year-Old Girl for Sex Carrying Condom and Burger ‘Faces Deportation’ https://t.co/lv6Ai3kW1N
— Breitbart London (@BreitbartLondon) January 31, 2018
“That is then masking the far, far bigger problem of extortion, blackmail and of other criminal activity, and damage being done to children and families by these groups, who quite frankly, in my experience, don’t care,” Mr. Bailey said.
“They are using tactics which are inappropriate,” he added, referencing one case where a group used their own young teen daughter as the “honey trap”.
“What about safeguarding around children?” the chief constable asked.
In internal police guidance obtained by The Times in January, officers were told to investigate any potential offences committed by paedophile hunting gangs as well as those caught in their sting operations, including harassment, privacy offences, or violence when the hunters confront the suspected paedophile.
This year, a report by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse found that police lack the skills to tackle internet grooming.