Paedophile hunters say offenders are increasing online activity during lockdown

3 June 2020, 00:04 | Updated: 3 June 2020, 07:02

Paedophile hunting groups have seen a five-fold increase in the number of sex offenders trying to make contact with children online since the lockdown.

Several groups have told Sky News that the decoys they use to pose as underage girls and boys in online chat rooms, are being messaged up to 200 times a day by adults.

It comes as police chiefs warn of a likely increase in vigilante action against suspected sex offenders once the lockdown is lifted.

Across the UK, around 90 named groups are active in tracking down online paedophiles.

On average, the groups carry out more than 100 sting operations a month, where they confront and detain suspects they have gathered evidence on.

The number of stings has fallen to just a handful during the lockdown. But Assistant Chief Constable Dan Vajzovic, the National Police Chiefs' Council lead for online child sex exploitation activist groups, said so-called paedophile hunters were still active and may be sitting on about a 160 cases.

Mr Vajzovic said: "During the first month of the lockdown, just 16 incidents were recorded, with 15 of those limited to 'e-activism', where evidence gathered in chat logs is passed to police."

Jo Stubbs, who has helped run a paedophile hunting team in Nottingham for several years, said she "expected a lot of teams to be picking up where they left off" once the lockdown is lifted.

But she also said hunters had been working increasingly with law enforcement and passing on evidence of criminality.

"A lot of the cases have been handed over to the police," she said.

"And a lot of them have been worked by the police. As always, there's a backlog and some cases that haven't been worked on, so I would expect that our teams would go out and get those.

"There is one case at the moment with another colleague, which was sent to the police more than a week ago and it still hasn't been acted on.

"This individual is still out there and has access to children. That's frustrating."

One woman, who acts as an online decoy for a paedophile-hunting group in Nottingham said there had been a massive increase in the number of adults making contact with her in chat rooms, believing she was a 14-year-old girl.

"It was very bad before lockdown, we were getting maybe 40 men messaging me on a chat site each day.

"Two days ago, I had over 208 messages in 24 hours. And that was just on one chat site."

The woman, who has children of her own, told us she uses multiple false names online and always tells those who make contact with her that she is just 14-years-old.

But she said the vast majority of men continue to seek contact with her.

"I'd have about 10 at a time replying back. By the time I've messaged them back, there's another 10 messages coming through, so it's just never ending.

"When I tell them I'm 14, only a small number are blocking me. Most still talk to me in a sexual way, even though I keep saying I'm just 14."

The activities of online activist groups are not illegal, but have occasionally resulted in allegations of assaults and a number of people targeted have gone on to commit suicide.

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, who alleged he had been planning to meet a 14-year-old girl in a supermarket car park in October 2017.

Assistant chief constable Vajzovic said: "Activist groups can produce some positive results, but our overall assessment is they are more harmful than they are good."