A group of British parents fed up with how authorities are — or aren't — working to stop online pedophiles has taken justice into its own hands. While the parents' efforts have led to some arrests of suspected pedophiles, police have warned the amateur vigilantes against stepping into territory reserved for professionals.
The group, which goes by the name "Letzgo Hunting" — an "online pedophile investigation team" — was reportedly formed in January and appears to be operating in the Midlands of England. Three men and three women, all parents, reportedly lead the team with the assistance of 13 "helpers." None of the members have been identified, but the group's leader goes by the name Scumm Buster and speaks on the group's behalf. In a recent interview with the BBC's Radio Five, Scumm Buster confirmed their vigilante roots, but qualified their intentions as non-violent:
"We're not working within the law, but we're not a vigilante lynch mob. We're not there to hurt anybody, we're there to get an explanation."
To get their answers, the adults masquerade online as teenage girls, setting up profiles on dating and social networking sites. They strike up flirtatious relationships with suspected pedophiles, in purported sting operations that can last days or even weeks. The vigilantes will often exchange photos with the people they are investigating — usually of the women in the group, taken with consent and then photoshopped to look "obviously young." Once the members of Letzgo Hunting feel they have sufficiently piqued the suspect's interest, they arrange a public meeting where they confront the potential attacker. (If this procedure sounds familiar, the set-up has some obvious parallels to the American reality TV show To Catch a Predator.)
To ensure the alleged pedophile comes out into the public space, the women of the group are used as "bait." Once the suspect is in sight, the members — equipped with video and audio equipment — approach and demand an explanation from the men, often warning them that the information could lead to their arrest.
Letzgo then uploads the footage onto its website, Facebook page, and YouTube channel, and also hands it over to the police for evidence. In this recent video, a suspect is seen fleeing as one of the members chases him.
Letzgo has reportedly carried out nine sting operations and at least seven arrests have since been made by the Warwickshire and Leicestershire police. The group also says it has evidence against another 35 suspected pedophiles.
While that may sound like a good thing, law enforcement officials have been clear that they aren't supportive of this DIY approach to justice and warn that these public "naming and shaming" tactics can impede future legal proceedings.
"While we understand the strong feelings that motivate this kind of activity, it can seriously affect the chances of success in court, preventing victims from getting justice and increasing the chances of offenders walking free," Leicestershire Police said in a statement on Monday.
Worse yet, such unofficial investigations could spark anger among abusers, causing them to further harm children or themselves. "Those who take this approach to exposing suspected pedophiles could be breaking the law," the Warwickshire Police told the Birmingham Mail.
Rather than taking matters into your own hands, police say, parents should contact local authorities, including the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, with any evidence of child abuse to ensure a thorough investigation.
Wanting to protect your child is a noble cause and going after would-be criminals is pretty badass, but this is not a movie and you are not Batman. Please leave criminal investigations to the professionals.