Surge of ‘paedophile hunters’ stings feared as lockdown lifts
Police believe “paedophile hunters” are sitting on evidence of child sexual abuse during the Covid-19 lockdown and fear a surge in vigilante action as measures are lifted.
Around 90 named groups are thought to be active in the UK, carrying out more than 100 undercover sting operations a month before restriction of movement rules were introduced at the end of March.
Assistant Chief Constable Dan Vajzovic said the “vast majority” involve “real world” action, where suspects are confronted, and the encounters often filmed and posted online.
But during the first month of the coronavirus lockdown just 16 incidents were recorded, with 15 of those limited to “e-activism”, where evidence gathered in chat logs is passed to police.
Mr Vajzovic, the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s lead for online child sex exploitation activist groups, said so-called paedophile hunters were still active and may be sitting on about 160 cases.
He told the PA news agency: “We’ve seen a dramatic decrease in the number of activist group incidents since lockdown.
“The online threat persists, and we are concerned that activists may be storing up incidents to act upon once lockdown measures are released.
“We believe that’s dangerous for child safety and would encourage activist groups to pass any material to police at as early a stage as possible.”
Vigilante groups usually pose as children or adult offenders online to lure in suspects and set up real-world encounters in order to expose them.
Their activity is not against the law but has occasionally resulted in alleged assaults, while some people targeted have taken their own lives.
Last year six members of the Predator Exposure group were cleared by a jury at Leeds Crown Court of charges including false imprisonment and common assault after prosecutors said they “overstepped the mark” when they confronted two men.
David Baker, 43, took his own life days after he was confronted by the Southampton Trap group after allegedly arranging to meet a 14-year-old child in a supermarket car park in October 2017.
London-based criminals have carried out paedophile hunter-style stings to blackmail people, marching them to ATMs to extort money and in some cases child abusers have claimed to be activists when caught with indecent images.
“Activist groups can produce some positive results but our overall assessment is they are more harmful than they are good,” said Mr Vajzovic.
“If they carry out activities and pass us material we will investigate and we encourage them to pass material to us at as early a stage as possible.”
Fears have been raised children are at greater risk of abuse as they spend more time online while off school due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Mr Vajzovic said police have seen a “trickle” of vigilante stings as movement restrictions have been relaxed.
But the senior officer told of his fears that children could be at risk of abuse because information has not been passed to police and that he believes there could be a surge as groups act on evidence gathered in lockdown.
He said: “Real-world activism is a real significant concern for us. This big drop off of incidents from over a hundred a month to 16 a month is, in my view, indicative of the motivations of these groups.
“That they are actually more interested in carrying out a sting and the notoriety that that brings them than they are in protecting children.
“If there are groups out there who have information about child abuse they need to notify their local police as soon as possible and not wait to carry out a sting for their own motivations.”