Police fear there will be a huge surge in the number of paedophile hunter stings taking place once lockdown is lifted.
There are thought to be around 90 vigilante groups active in the UK, carrying out more than 100 undercover operations each month prior to restrictions coming into force in March.
Assistant Chief Constable Dan Vajzovic said the ‘vast majority’ involve ‘real world’ action, where suspects are confronted, and the encounters often filmed and posted online. But during the first month of lockdown just 16 incidents were recorded, with 15 of those limited to ‘e-activism’, where evidence gathered in chat logs is passed to police.
Mr Vajzovic, the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s lead for online child sex exploitation activist groups, said so-called paedophile hunters were still active and may be sitting on about 160 cases in anticipation of restrictions being eased so they can act upon them themselves.
He said: ‘We’ve seen a dramatic decrease in the number of activist group incidents since lockdown. The online threat persists, and we are concerned that activists may be storing up incidents to act upon once lockdown measures are released.
‘We believe that’s dangerous for child safety and would encourage activist groups to pass any material to police at as early a stage as possible.’
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.
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 after allegedly arranging to meet a 14-year-old child in a supermarket car park in October 2017.
London-based criminals have carried out paedophile hunter-style stings to blackmail people, marching them to ATMs to extort money and in some cases child abusers have claimed to be activists when caught with indecent images.
Mr Vajzovic said: ‘Activist groups can produce some positive results but our overall assessment is they are more harmful than they are good
‘If they carry out activities and pass us material we will investigate and we encourage them to pass material to us at as early a stage as possible.’
Fears have been raised children are at greater risk of abuse as they spend more time online while off school due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Mr Vajzovic said police have seen a ‘trickle’ of vigilante stings as movement restrictions have been relaxed.
But the senior officer told of his fears that children could be at risk of abuse because information has not been passed to police and that he believes there could be a surge as groups act on evidence gathered in lockdown.
He said: ‘Real-world activism is a real significant concern for us. This big drop off of incidents from over a hundred a month to 16 a month is, in my view, indicative of the motivations of these groups.
‘That they are actually more interested in carrying out a sting and the notoriety that that brings them than they are in protecting children.
‘If there are groups out there who have information about child abuse they need to notify their local police as soon as possible and not wait to carry out a sting for their own motivations.’