Investigating paedophile hunters operating in Hertfordshire

Cobra UK work in St Albans and Harpenden to protect children against online predators.

Cobra UK work in St Albans and Harpenden to protect children against online predators. - Credit: Archant

With child internet use at an all time high, there are more sexual predators than can be dealt with by police, according to a national safeguarding online team, Cobra UK.

Cobra UK aims to protect children from being exploited online. Picture: Getty Images

Cobra UK aims to protect children from being exploited online. Picture: Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Team members have paid regular jobs and do this as they are dedicated to reducing sex crimes against children and the number of active child sex offenders out on our streets.

This paper spoke to the team leaders of Cobra UK - Matthew and Lucy Hunter (not their real names) - who recently did a ‘sting’ in St Albans and another close by in Hitchin.

The team use pretend profiles of children and wait until inappropriate messages are sent, which they say often happens very quickly.

Matthew said: “We can set up seven decoy accounts and within hours can attract hundreds of new predators.”

Once the team collect evidence of multiple inappropriate messages to the ‘child’ they arrange to meet the offender to confront them about their behaviour and wait for the police to arrest them.

Evidence can include masturbation videos, images of genitals, sexually explicit commands and even talk of bestiality.

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The communication always comes from the offenders first and the decoy cannot lead them in anyway. If any entrapment were to happen, the case cannot be picked up by the Crown Prosecution Service.

The team of up to seven people, including security guards, first-aiders and other trained professionals, immediately let the offenders know who they are at the meeting point and assure them that they are not going to harm them in any way.

A female with a calm and reassuring manner talks to them about the evidence, checks they are the right person and tells them the police are on their way. They film the procedure for the safety of themselves and the offender.

Matthew said: “It is sad because you see what the human race can be like.

“We explain to them who we are - it all has to be done in the correct manner. The welfare of the predator is paramount - if they get hurt they become the victim.”

The approach of Cobra UK is to try and gain an insight into why the men do what they do and to help them realise that it is very damaging to the children who they would be contacting.

Lucy said: “We are only scratching the surface. There are so many people out there who send sexual messages and images to children and groom them over Facebook and other forums with the aim of meeting them face-to-face.

“When we started this we had no idea just how many there were.”

There are 186 voluntary paedophile ‘hunting’ teams across the UK. Matthew said that the team has a great relationship with the police, that they always show up when they are called and that they have a 100 per cent success rate of getting the perpetrators registered on the Sex Offenders Register.

Once the police have arrived at the scene, team Cobra leave them to it and are only involved further if they are called to court to give evidence. The team also provide after care for victims of sexual abuse and online grooming and get positive feedback from survivors of abuse within the communities they serve.

Lucy said: “I like to think we are catching the little fish so they never become big fish.

“There is no help for these people though.

“Once they get out of prison they are not given any help. We even had a case recently where a man was grooming children online whilst in custody.”

Cobra UK advises parents that the best way to keep their children safe is to take away all devices at night, make full use of parental controls, ban the use of any live apps and monitor phones and laptops, ensuring there are no PIN locks on them.

Herts police said that they would not comment on Cobra UK’s work when approached.