Paedophile hunters in Herts see huge rise in online grooming

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

Hertfordshire paedophile hunters have identified an increase in incidents of child exploitation using live apps since lockdown.

Cobra UK are a national safeguarding online team of volunteers dedicated to reducing sex crimes against children and the number of active child sex offenders on the streets.

This newspaper spoke to locally-based team leader Matthew Hunter [not his real name] about the latest surge in online abuse via apps.

They said at the height of the pandemic lockdown 100 children a week were being newly groomed and 500 were being safeguarded.

Predators using TickTock, Chat Avenue, OK Live and Bebo are paying for children to receive online rewards to gain their trust.

Offenders use ‘treasure chests’ as bait, which children can then cash in for money or rewards online.

Then they take them into a private chatroom to carry out certain indecent acts. Some cases involved children carrying out graphic acts of directed self-harm.

Most Read

Matthew said he has investigated cases and monitors online activity in St Albans and Harpenden, as well as elsewhere in the county.

He explained that predators ask children questions such as “Can you do sit-ups?” or “Can you do press-ups?”, before escalating to questions like “Has anyone got any newborn babies?”. He has even seen parents walking past the doors of children engaging in grooming activity, completely unaware of what his happening to their son or daughter.

If they are contacted by parents, Cobra hunters can take over the child’s chat and find out who they have been speaking to, preventing the youngster from continuing the contact.

They will carry on the conversation to determine whether anything sinister is taking place, and if this is the case they will then gather evidence to present to police. In the past this has included can live recordings, images of genitals and sexually explicit commands.

Matthew said: “When the lockdown came, we found new ways of working such as more online monitoring and less face-to-face stings. We have still been decoying but have handed the information over to police, who have been really good.

“Within the apps, once we see sexual exploitation taking place we get in contact with the police with the details of the victim.”

Matthew explained that the approach of Cobra UK is to try and gain an insight into why these men do what they do and help them realise that their offences would be very damaging to any children they contacted. Offending sites have been reported to MPs, he said, but nothing gets done.

He urged parents to be aware of the risks: “If your child is online on a PC, phone or a gaming device, make sure you can see what they are doing.

“Talk to your child about it - they may be asked to do seemingly acceptable things that then grow into very unacceptable things.”

There are 186 voluntary paedophile ‘hunting’ teams across the UK. Cobra UK is still carrying out live stings, which involves a team of up to seven people confronting an alleged offender face-to-face after convincing them they are meeting a minor.

The team, which has included security guards, first-aiders and other trained professionals, immediately lets the offender know who they are and reassures them that they are not going to harm them in any way.

A team member will them talk to them about the evidence, check they are the right person and tell them the police are on their way. They film the entire procedure for the safety of themselves and the offender.

Once the police arrive at the scene, Cobra leave them to it and are only involved further if they are called to give evidence at court.

However, Matthew does not hold out much hope for offenders receiving tough sentences: “I don’t think the courts are hard enough on them. You can get more for a driving offence.”