Vigilante “paedophile hunters” catch the lowest-threat offenders and prevent police focusing on the most dangerous targets, a senior officer has warned.
Assistant chief constable Dan Vajzovic said the hunters often catch people with an under-developed mental capacity and no previously disclosed interest in children.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for online child sex exploitation activist groups said: “It’s that differentiation between a serious, organised criminal who’s going to carry out a contact offence and someone who is having a chat which is technically illegal but not necessarily in the public interest to prosecute.
“We target organised crime groups with exploitation including live streams of child abuse across international boundaries, trafficking, and grooming for the purpose of physical exploitation.”
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 during the Covid pandemic, at the end of March.
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.
Mr Vajzovic said: “All child abuse is serious. The totality of the threat in the UK is really high. Depending on the source, there’s between 100,000 and 300,000 men in the UK with a sexual interest in children.
“It’s a phenomenon and a huge priority for police. But we can’t arrest our way out of this problem.
“Hunter groups divert police resources from high-threat targets to lower-threat ones. All the time we spend on cases that ultimately don’t end in a criminal justice outcome is resources we don’t have for the high-threat offenders we are looking to target.”
He said people who want to help should become special constables or volunteer for organisations that support victims.
Dr Joe Purshouse, an academic at the University of East Anglia who has published research into paedophile hunter groups, said more needs to be done to control them.
“They are diverse and have a very significant impact,” he said.
“Covert activity, developing relationships, and undercover infiltration used to only be done by well-resourced police forces with sophisticated technology. Now, all you need is a phone.
“They target low-hanging apples and go to great lengths to tempt someone to commit an offence.
“It needs a lot of work to create usable evidence and leads to messy cases that need work and aren’t doing as much to protect society.”
— to www.telegraph.co.uk