Two child abuse survivors have turned to internet vigilantism to trap pedophiles after becoming frustrated at a lack of police resources to tackle online grooming.
The men have begun posing as 13- and 14-year-old girls in Facebook groups and chat rooms to carry out stings on men who try to meet for sex. Operating under the banner of Pedophile Hunters London, they have secured one conviction, and six other men they have targeted are facing charges including attempted sexual assault.
Jay, 29, who requested that his real name was not used, said he considered the stings “my therapy”. His colleague, JB, 36, said: “Being a survivor of child abuse. I believe no other child should suffer what I went through, so if I can stop a child being raped, tortured or even murdered, that is what I should do.”
They said they wanted to expose “a lack of funding or cuts where not enough is being done to stop this vile crime”.
One of the men arrested following their sting had told them he wanted to have sex with a six-year-old and had already had sex with a 14-year old, a crime of rape. “It should not be us, the public, doing this work,” they said. “But where the police and authorities fail to act, we must step up to prevent others being hurt.”
Police deny failing to act against online child grooming and are urging PHL and similar web vigilante groups to stop. At least a dozen groups have been operating in the UK in the last two years under names such as Dark Justice and Letzgo Hunting. A new group, Unknown TV, launched in September in south-east London and claims to have carried out 16 stings in the last month, including five in one night.
Unknown TV has used physical force to detain targets. Last week police were called out to one of the group’s stings following an erroneous report they were planning to use baseball bats. The group has appealed to supporters for funds to buy stab vests.
The pedophile hunters confront suspected abusers in public and then post videos of the stings online. Despite providing evidence leading to several convictions, detectives say the practice puts children at risk and jeopardizes official investigations.
“Vigilantes like this should not continue because they are taking risks they don’t understand,” said the Norfolk police’s Ch Const Simon Bailey, the national policing lead on child abuse. “Revealing the identity of suspected pedophiles gives the suspect the opportunity to destroy evidence before the police can investigate them. It can jeopardize ongoing police investigations, and these people have no way of safeguarding child victims.”
He said people wrongly accused in public may be tempted to kill themselves. “That is an appalling consequence to contemplate,” he said.
The National Police Chiefs Council said that despite expected nationwide cuts of up to 25% in central government funding, they are prioritizing child sex abuse and anti-grooming investigations. The National Crime Agency said it set up a joint operations center with GCHQ to target child sexual exploitation.
JB and Jay showed the Guardian how they joined Facebook groups where older men sought to meet young girls, and then posed as children. Early in the exchanges the hunters state their age and ask if that is OK with the man. Often the messages will then turn sexual. One Scottish man said he wanted to meet JB’s 14-year-old decoy and exchange naked pictures with her. He sent her several pictures of his penis.
When Jay first entered chat rooms to set up his decoy character, he said, he was “absolutely disgusted” by the explicit way adult men would talk to people they believed to be children. “They wouldn’t do it on the street, but on the internet it is a different world and it is not being policed,” he said.
He admitted that his first instinct when preparing to confront suspected pedophiles in public was to “give them a good kicking”, but said he resisted the urge. “The adrenaline was running through me like never before,” he said of his first sting.
When preparing to confront a “very muscular” suspect who “had no life in his eyes” recently, JB became so afraid for his safety that he aborted his plans and called the police. The man was arrested and charged.
PHL insists it does not reveal the identity of its targets until conviction, but other groups do. Last month Unknown TV, whose members wear branded black tops, broadcast a video of one man being marched through a town center, his captors calling out to passersby: “You want to know what a pedophile looks like? This is what he looks like.”
In one film they pinned a man to the ground and in another they frog marched a man, who appeared to have mental health issues, off a train platform.
Another hunter, Shane Brannigan, admitted in September that encounters could teeter on the brink of violence. “Not sure how much longer I can contain myself,” he said in a Facebook post. “Looking forward to one coming at me so I can defend myself.”
He added: “We have absolutely no duty of care for any nonce we expose, the police and government and other limp wristed pc Toby’s [politically correct fool] give them plenty of that.”
Pedophile hunters came to public prominence in 2013 when the Midlands groups Letzgo Hunting and Stinson Hunter mounted several stings that resulted in convictions. But it can be rough justice. Gary Cleary, a man accused by Letzgo Hunting, subsequently killed himself.
Asked about the activities of pedophile hunters, a Scotland Yard spokesperson said: “The Metropolitan police service does not support activities by individuals to target suspected pedophiles. This type of action could jeopardize or interfere with ongoing investigations, and our advice to anyone who has information about suspected child sex abuse – online or otherwise – is to contact police so we can investigate.”
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