A group of paedophile hunters has said that the problem is getting worse despite four years of their efforts to entrap would-be abusers.
Dark Justice, a Tyneside-based duo who started at the end of October 2014, said agencies were overwhelmed, sentences passed down to the men they caught out were softer and the deterrent of being named and shamed did not appear to stop on-line groomers.
But having survived a serious legal challenge to their methods, the group insisted they will carry on their undercover actions which have seen 163 people arrested, 82 convicted and 44 jailed.
Dark Justice uses fake profiles on social media sites and waits for would-be predators to make contact with what they believe to be an underage child.
Often within minutes the civilian investigators are pestered for sex and are asked for intimate photos or a real-life meeting.
The paedophiles face a shock when, instead of a child, they are met by two men armed with a video camera and some direct questions about what they are up to.
The pair pass on their evidence to police and allow the legal process to be completed before they name and shame the men they catch.
Despite high-profile success, Dark Justice fears the situation has got worse since 2014.
One of them, who calls himself Callum, said: “It all started because all we wanted is change and four years later we are still fighting for the same thing.
“The law is getting weaker and weaker as the years go on.
“At the start, everyone we caught was going to jail, now they’re getting suspended sentences and community orders.
“More police costs are getting cut and organisations are overwhelmed.”
The pair said, despite the publicity they have generated, paedophiles still take the risk of being caught to meet what they think will be an underage child.
Callum said: “That’s the scary thing about it, you would think it would be a deterrent.
“It might deter a few but the numbers still keep coming and they are getting worse and worse, destroying their home lives.
“Only this Monday morning we had a man in a brand new Mercedes drive all the way from the Midlands to Newcastle, to meet a child for sexual activity,
“He has got a really good life, a child, a partner, nice job and he has thrown it all away.
“It blows my brain away, why these people throw away what they have.”
Their methods came under scrutiny when there was a legal challenge in the courts from defendants who tried, unsuccessfully, to get their cases thrown out.
Callum said: “It was really scary because it was not just us, if we lost then any other group in the country would have been gone, and it would have been like a domino effect.
“Hundreds could have walked free.
“It was difficult but we won in the end.”
According to reports, the judge in the legal challenge accepted that the paedophile hunters were not bound by the same rules of evidence as police officers or informants.
Callum said police forces now accept that groups like theirs exist, even if they do not officially condone their investigations.
“We have an understanding, I don’t think they will be able to be on our side but they realise these groups exist and they cannot keep saying ‘don’t do this’,” he said.
“They know it doesn’t work.
“They have realised we are here and they have to deal with the fact we are here.”
The pair are self-employed and have spent thousands of pounds on their inquiries over the years.
Callum said: “It has all been for a good cause and we would do it again in a heartbeat.
“Over four years we have proved ourselves, we are not here for fame or glory, we have said the same thing from day one, until we get change we can never stop doing what we do.”
Within a minute of setting up a fake profile of an under-age girl on a teen chat site, the paedophile hunters say they are pestered for sex by would-be predators.
The desperate sex offenders start pestering for intimate photos, send indecent images of themselves and over time cajole their victim into a real-life meeting.
But the men, 10 of whom have fallen for it already, face a shock when instead of a girl, they are met by two men in their 20s armed with a video camera and some direct questions about what they are up to.
The Newcastle-based group insists it works within the law, and pass on all their information to the police, letting the legal system play out once an arrest has been made.
It is only when a conviction has been secured that Dark Justice publishes details of its latest sting on its website.
Driven by a desire to do something about the scale of the problem, and the perceived lack of Government action, the unemployed pair spend up to 10 hours a day maintaining online conversations with men they hope to snare.
The law enforcement agencies, whom Dark Justice says it respects, cannot employ their tactics which would be classed as entrapment, but the duo are sure their methods are right.
One of the Dark Justice team, calling himself Scott, said: “I could take you to a website right now and within seconds or minutes I could have a person actively wanting to have sex with an eight-year-old child.
“We could say we were eight and they would actively be wanting to send images and wanting the child to send images as well.
“We are talking about teen chat websites, specifically for teens, and you have got people (predators) from 20 all the way to 80 years old going on there.
“People need to remember if kids are going to be there, paedophiles will try to be there, it’s the whole point of why they are there.
“They are there to prey on children.”
His Dark Justice partner, Callum, said they follow strict rules, never instigating conversations after setting up a fake profile, and never turning conversations towards sex.
He said: “We try to knock them off the subject but nine times out of 10 they stick to that subject.
“It knocks you sick.
“Would you really let your kids online if you’d seen that sort of thing?”
When a meeting is arranged, Dark Justice picks a public spot well covered by CCTV cameras and then waits to record the moment of truth when the paedophile realises they have been tricked.
They fire questions at their target, asking why they think their behaviour is acceptable.
But they say they do not get violent, swear or try to provoke them.
Dark Justice says it warns the police 10 minutes before a meeting takes place, and once it has happened they go straight to the police station and make a statement.
Scott has sympathy for families if a member has been exposed by their operations, but has no regrets for the men themselves.
He said: “If you are going to destroy a life, prepare to have yours named and shamed online.”
They have spoken to the police about their sting operations.
Scott said: “We have had a talk about safety but they understand that it doesn’t matter what they say, we’re not going to stop.”
The group have around 50 potential targets ongoing at the moment.
Scott said: “We have phones with so many contacts in them and three of them are people you know and the other 40 odd are paedophiles or potential paedophiles.
“People think it’s crazy, you’re walking around with two phones and you have one that’s ringing all the time and (getting) text messages.
“People look at you like you’re a drug dealer or something.
“It’s what you call a ‘nonce phone’, I guess.”
Callum said the motivation was to highlight the issue and fight for tougher laws.
“That’s why there’s a lot of hours going in to what we do,” he said.
“Making a change, constantly pushing, getting a hold of people, seeing MPs who want to change things.”
His friend added: “We’re not in this for money, for fame, we’re not heroes, we’re not vigilantes, we are just concerned citizens who want to see stronger laws and more money going into the right groups.”