Paedophile hunter groups: Vigilantism or civic justice?
“It’s relentless”, says Sam, the leader of a paedophile hunter group, when asked to quantify just how many predators are stalking the web for children.
It’s an uncomfortable answer from a man who dedicates his spare time to trapping online offenders from the Wakefield and Kirklees area.
Setting up decoy accounts on dating or chat sites, it’s a dark underworld few are familiar with or have any handle on how prevalent it has become.
Launching PIKO (Protecting Innocent Kids Online) a year ago, Sam leads a team of 10 geared towards drawing out paedophiles online.
He has helped secure one conviction already, but there is no shortage of targets.
It’s simple, he poses as a 14-year-old online and waits for predators to take the bate, which isn’t always very long.
Like many so-called hunter groups, he makes it clear to potential targets early during the conversation that he is under 16.
It’s not a deterrent for some, and chillingly, makes others more determined to engage in sexual conversation.
He said: “Once we get a target latched on, the phone will be going left, right and centre, all day and night.
“Even when we tell them we have school in the morning, you will wake up to even more messages.
“I think the public would be shocked at how many of these people are out there. I think almost everybody will know someone like this (without realising).”
Having survived horrific sexual abuse as a child, Sam regards hunting as a form of therapy, after counselling failed to help him.
Reluctant to provide too much detail about himself, he is 37 and grew up in the district, although Sam is not his real name.
It’s not because he fears retribution, but because he uses his own teenage photos on decoy accounts.
For him, it’s beyond personal, so using a decoy photo would mean another youngster becoming the centre of a predator’s attention.
He said: “If I’m that person they are talking with, it’s not harming any other child. I wouldn’t want anyone else’s face on there.
“It makes me feel that I’m preventing other people going through what I did.”
With more than 120 self-styled paedophile groups nationwide, they have helped send convictions soaring but they remain a divisive issue.
Some see them as civic-minded fighters for justice, helping an already-stretched police force.
But there are others who have labelled it simple vigilantism - a pitchfork mob mentality certain to backfire.
Unquestionably, it has become a PR hot potato for police - they can’t be seen to be offering support, but are fully aware of the public backlash if they are seen to be allowing paedophiles to slip through the net.
Hunter groups have themselves felt the long arm of the law for their heavy-handed actions or worse still, have got the wrong man.
Many use Facebook to live stream their stings, watched by a baying online public as predators are confronted and detained in public places.
It’s this kind of kangaroo court that Sam works to avoid.
“There’s a lot of controversy about some teams but they work to their own remit, they let emotions get in their way,” he said.
“A lot go live on Facebook, I do not do that, it’s heavy handed and I’m a little bit more savvy.
“The ideal thing to do if you go on a sting is to do it quickly and quietly, but some take it to the extreme.
“Some are giving the rest of us a bad name.
“The police are doing a very good job on limited resources, they can’t physically do what we do.
“We are helping to get more convictions than they are getting.”
As the debate over hunter groups continues, including talk of them being outlawed in Scotland, for Sam, he says he’s determined to continue his work until the law toughens up on sex predators.
“I think it’s a lifelong job until the Government wake up to the magnitude of the issue,” he added.
“The convictions are not long enough, it took us over a year to get a man into court, he admitted it and he did not even get jail. Is that right? No, it’s not.”
Children’s charity, the NSPCC, says they understand the motives of paedophile hunter groups, their actions could do more harm than good.
A spokesman said: “While the NSPCC understands that emotions can run high as the sexual exploitation of children is truly reprehensible, we would urge everyone to leave it to the proper authorities to identify and investigate offenders.
“Engaging in this kind of activity could lead to people getting hurt or inadvertently jeopardising a delicate and complex on-going investigation which may put more children at risk of harm.”
DCI Benn Kemp of Wakefield District Police, said: “Protecting children from any abuse is a top priority for West Yorkshire Police and we do share the concerns of groups regarding the internet activity of potential child abusers.
“We encourage members of the public to report any concerns about illegal internet activity of potential child abusers to us so that we can deal with it.
“We do stress that certain activities carried out by these groups could undermine police investigations and result in individuals confronting persons they have identified leaving themselves open to prosecution.
“We urge members of such groups not to carry out this activity and instead to report suspected offences in West Yorkshire to the force.”