They claim they are not vigilantes, well, they are! Anybody who takes the law into their own hands is a vigilante, and they should be arrested by the police, but they are not, so basically the police are condoning it, in our opinion. It's only a matter of time before someone also has a gun or knife and someone gets hurt.
By STEVE BIRD
Holding up his smartphone, the founder of an organisation called Letzgo Hunting scrolls through a long series of tiny internet profile pictures of men.
Some are in their 20s and grinning inanely, others are middle-aged with blank expressions. A few are pensioners.
All of these men, says Jamie — or ‘Scumm Buster’ as he likes to be known — are paedophiles grooming under-age girls in chatrooms and on social networking and dating sites such as ‘badoo’ and ‘tagged.com’, each of which have more than 100 million members worldwide. ‘We are currently in online contact with about 30 such men who are talking to us in a sexually explicit way as we pose as teenage girls on the web,’ Jamie says.
‘They are cunning and expert at targeting children.’
He calls up a number of obscene photographs the men have taken of themselves and sent to the ‘girls’.
Letzgo Hunting is a vigilante organisation which uses the internet to hunt paedophiles. The group, made up of mothers and fathers, was in the headlines recently when arrests came after the group handed police dossiers of their contact with ten men, as well as videos of some men meeting a ‘decoy’ girl, apparently for sex.
In many recordings of the group’s encounters with alleged paedophiles, the suspect is filmed fleeing after realising that he has been set up. The group then ‘names and shames’ them by posting the videos online.
Such tactics, first championed in America, are as contentious as they have proven popular.
And while most people find it reprehensible that anyone should devote so much time to ‘chatting’ with perverts online in an attempt to police the web, it once again begs the question why internet giants can’t do more to prevent the internet becoming a hunting ground for paedophiles.
Worryingly, these vigilantes are acting as police, judge and jury. One day they could wrongly name an innocent man as a paedophile with potentially catastrophic results.
So who are the key players in Letzgo Hunting, and are they really qualified to tackle the menace of online grooming?
Can the ‘evidence’ they gather really result in criminal charges and convictions?
In the lobby of a hotel in the market town of Hinckley, Leicestershire, three men place their smartphone handsets on the coffee table and look furtively around to check that our conversation cannot be overheard.
It is the first time the group has met a journalist to reveal how they operate, and what motivates them.
‘We have to protect our identity — a lot of the paedophiles would love to know who we are,’ says Jamie.
He is in his late 20s, is a father, and has worked as a doorman. Thick set and with tattoos on his arms, he is physically intimidating but speaks softly with an East Midlands accent.
‘I know people who have been abused, and a few years ago discovered a friend of mine had been convicted of paedophilia, which shook me to the core — none of his friends had the faintest idea,’ he says.
‘And then I saw the American television show To Catch A Predator, where investigators use the internet and a decoy girl to trap paedophiles, who are filmed and then arrested.’
And so, in January, Letzgo Hunting was born in Leicestershire. It is now running up to 80 fake profiles of girls on about 20 websites.
The ‘girls’ are usually aged 14. The profiles are often accompanied by pictures of a young-looking female member of the group (any wrinkles are airbrushed out).
However, another of the three men at the meeting, ‘Psycho Buster’ (he refuses to give his real name), rejects the suggestion they are vigilantes, preferring the term ‘private investigators’.
The stocky, 50-year-old father of four, wearing jeans, a jacket and open-neck shirt, is animated in his defence of their tactics. ‘Police act only when there is a victim, but we get there before a crime is committed,’ he says. ‘If they weren’t talking to us, they would be talking to real schoolgirls.’
‘I do this because I am a father. The police are too busy stopping people speeding to tackle this problem. We don’t take the law into our hands — we don’t attack these people. We hand our information to police to let them decide what to do.’
Nine people have now been arrested and released on bail after Letzgo Hunting provided police with information about them. They have not been charged.
But because of the work the group has carried out, a Nottinghamshire man is due to stand trial charged with two counts of raping a child, grooming, false imprisonment and possession of extreme pornographic images.
It is, the vigilantes say, proof that their methods work.
However, the police, the NSPCC and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre have criticised them, claiming they risk jeopardising existing police investigations.
There is also concern that, if their research is flawed, they could target an innocent man or incite others to attack someone they have ‘named and shamed’.
Jamie denies this.
‘Our system is foolproof,’ he says. ‘We are in contact with these men over a number of days and weeks, and always clearly state we are 14.’
He says that they reject offers of help from ‘nutters’ who email their website, which can get thousands of hits a week.
‘We don’t condone violence. This is about information-gathering. We don’t let just anyone join us,’ he adds.
He knows of two other groups posing as teenage girls to target suspected paedophiles. Letzgo Hunting itself has about half a dozen or so people helping with its ‘work’, all of whom are parents from a variety of backgrounds.
As we sit talking, and the clock reaches 5pm, the three men’s mobiles start to twitch into life as the group’s fake profiles go ‘online’ and messages are received.
‘Our profiles are set to “away” — in other words, out of contact — during school hours to make us look legitimate,’ Jamie says. ‘But from now until late on, we receive and send messages.’
‘Every parent needs to know that this is what is happening on phones, tablets and computers owned by their children.’
Thankfully, many men using these sites perfectly legitimately to meet women report the group’s fake profiles after discovering that the woman they are contacting is only 14. But the conversations with less scrupulous men make chilling reading.
The chat starts innocently enough. In one, a man called Shiv expresses surprise that the girl is on an adult networking website, adding: ‘You look hot for 14.’
Shiv, 33, sends increasingly flattering messages before telling pornographic jokes. Through Jamie, the fake girl says that she is bored at school. Shiv then asks: ‘U want to have sex? I will surely spoil u. Trust me.’
What Shiv then says is too sexually explicit — and sickening — to be published. Suffice to say, moments after suggesting a meeting, he admits being worried about being ‘done’ for under-age sex.
‘Psycho Buster’ says many men are accustomed to targeting girls from broken families, who have low self-esteem and are desperate for the slightest compliment. ‘Teenage girls want to be seen as adults, and so join adult networking sites. Paedophiles go to these sites knowing what teenagers talk about, how they talk and what flattery works best,’ he says. ‘They go on to have conversations I wouldn’t have with my wife of many years.’
A few weeks ago, a man called Max, who said he was 27, showed just how determined he was to meet a 14-year-old when he engaged one of the group’s fake girls in conversation. He was also a dab hand at the text-style shorthand children use when typing.
‘I got a very nise hart and wod love to go out wit u an look after u,’ he said, before sending over photographs showing him to be a tall, well-dressed Asian man. ‘Do u smoke babe? Drink? Alcohol? You a virgin babe? I want u 2b my girlfriend, babe. U want to meet? Im free today? Anytink u want I get for u, babe.’
Jamie engineered a meeting with the man in a Leicester playground. Within the hour, a female member of the group was waiting in the park as bait, while the chatroom conversation via mobiles continued with Max to guide him into the park.
The resulting clip, posted on YouTube, shows Max fleeing when he realises he has been set up. Sean, the third member of the team in the hotel lobby, chased him with his camera.
‘It can all happen very quickly, and we have to see who is available from the group to go along,’ Jamie adds. ‘Sean is there to film and also make sure we all stay calm and controlled.’
‘The first time I confronted someone face to face, I had no idea how I was going to react. I knew I had to suppress any anger. I’m also mindful for our personal safety.’ (These three men are clearly capable of looking after themselves — Jamie and ‘Psycho Buster’ are trained in martial arts.)
Those men who don’t run away when they are confronted often say they thought the girl was over 18, or simply that they were meeting as innocent friends. Jamie often quotes back explicit passages which the man in question has written, before warning that the files will be passed to police and the video of the encounter posted online.
‘We have been contacted by people who say they’ve been abused by some of those we have named and shamed on our website,’ Jamie says, noting that it was only when Jimmy Savile was named as an abuser that the flood of victims came forward.
The group’s Facebook and Twitter accounts are inundated with messages of support.
‘The public see us doing what they expect the police to do,’ Jamie says, as he replies to another message sent to the fake female profiles on his phone.
They are certainly passionate about what they do — to the point of being fanatical, some might feel. However, they are not trained in law or law enforcement.
They are sometimes gung-ho, branding the people they expose as paedophiles, despite their fleeing without getting a chance to tell their side of the story.
A sense of their attitude can be gleaned from a quote from Genghis Khan, the ruthless Mongol leader, which Letzgo Hunting posted on one of its first videos: ‘I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.’
Leicester Police says the actions of such groups can ‘seriously’ affect the chances of a court conviction. ‘You would never see any of the legitimate crime agencies doing it this way,’ a police spokesman says. ‘Any paedophile investigations we conduct are done in the strict rigour of the law to ensure that we have strong, sound evidence to prosecute offenders.’
Chief Constable Dave Whatton, of the Association of Chief Police Officers, is equally concerned.‘Revealing the identity of suspected paedophiles gives the suspect the opportunity to destroy evidence before the police can investigate them. It also leads to people who have been identified going missing, or it raises concerns for their safety.’
‘This can divert significant resources into protecting suspects, which would be better spent in investigating and, where there is evidence, prosecuting them.’
But at a time when there are so many disturbing paedophile cases in the news, it is hardly surprising that parents want to take action to protect children.
Whether the files Letzgo Hunting is amassing can be classed as police evidence will be established when a decision is made over whether to charge the remaining nine men arrested and on police bail.
In the coming months, we will also find out whether the man due to stand trial for rape in Nottingham will be convicted on the strength of the group’s actions.
Success in the courts, rather than on the internet, will surely determine whether this vigilante-style approach can yield genuine results.