Casting a long shadow – the rise of the online vigilante

Private detective

If you’d asked us (many, many years ago) what mums did, we’d have probably answered something along the lines of cooking, housework, shopping, looking after kids, and perhaps in our more enlightened moments, even holding down a job. Thankfully, these days we have moved on from the stereotypical views of our childhood.

However, although we are now properly enlightened, we were more than a little taken aback to discover that there seems to be an increasing interest in a somewhat dubious new pastime being taken up by mums and dads across the country – the online paedophile hunter.

We’ve know for several years now about the existence of these shadowy vigilante groups, but it appears that despite criticism from the police, the NSPCC and the legal profession, people – and parents in particular – are still not averse to having a go themselves.

A recent BBC news article highlighted the story of “The housewife who catches sex groomers” in which “Chelsea Hunter”, a 35 year-old mum-of- four from Kent , spends her days looking after her kids and doing household chores, but at night turns into “Chloe” her 14 year-old alter-ego. Chloe is the decoy to lure paedophiles into chatting to her. She then arranges a meet-up,  at which point the group she works for – the aptly named “Shadow Hunters” – confront their suspect and hand over all their evidence to the police.

For Ms Hunter, this “job” has given her something to do:

“It sounds silly,” she says, “but I’d probably be bored now; if I wasn’t doing this, I’d be lost.

“I still watch all my soaps, if the kids need me I can still do that – you just make up an excuse [to the groomer] and say your mum’s calling and you’ll be back in a minute.”

If your jaw is on the floor reading that, you’re not alone. A suggestion Ms Hunter: why not try reading a book, going rock climbing or Zumba dancing, crocheting a 3D map of the UK, taking up stamp collecting – in fact anything to relieve your boredom other than this.

Any form of entrapment is something that really should be left to the professionals. There have been countless examples where online vigilante groups have confronted innocent people, jeopardised already on-going investigations, and in some cases even put children’s lives at risk with their ineptitude.

Some groups even live-stream their encounters, which can do irreperable damage to their victim and the families involved when,  as more-often-than not, they have targeted the wrong person.

Whilst we of course understand the strength of feeling members of the public have towards those who abuse children or groom them online, taking matters into your own hands is never advisable.

There will no doubt be those who would argue that in some cases, these groups have provided evidence which has led to prosecutions. That is true, but only for a very small number of cases. In most cases, the “evidence” provided by these groups has proven to be inaccurate, flawed or inadmissable.

The concept of the armchair investigator is one which has seen an exponential rise in recent years, due largely to the ever- pervasive digital world we now inhabit.

We see it regularly in our work as private investigators. We have clients who come to us and present us with their own findings (which are often wrong); we have clients who give us advice on how to obtain information (based on things they have seen or read online and believe to be fact), and we have even had clients who have already used tactics such as those described by Ms Hunter to try to take matters into their own hands.

It is easier now than ever before to find out pretty much anything about anyone. It is easy to assume another online identity and convince others you are someone other than who  you really are. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

We can’t see that this sort of activity by vigilante groups will ever really go away. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and with the advent of new and ever-intrusive technology, we can’t see it going back in any time soon.

So we end with a word of advice for any would-be online paedophile hunter: the next time you’re bored, why not try a spot of online backgammon? Works for us.