Vigilante Groups Take the Law into Their Own Hands in Online Predator Sting Operations


Civilian groups across the country are posing as underage kids on social media to catch online sexual predators, but do these vigilante groups actually help law enforcement? Or do they complicate the legal process with their unofficial sting operations?

Boots, president of Indiana-based nonprofit Bikers Against Predators, describes their approach. “We put decoy accounts on various social media platforms, waiting for individuals to reach out to these blind accounts, thinking they’re talking to an underage kid. We let them lead the conversation, and usually, it’s inappropriate.” They arrange meetups and film the encounters, providing evidence for law enforcement.

Since 2010, Boots claims his group has caught over 310 alleged predators, with a conviction rate he attributes to their professional approach. However, other groups operate without law enforcement backing, leading to murky waters in court.

From California to Pennsylvania, New Mexico to New Jersey and Missouri, these groups use adult decoys to target online predators. Reports of online child enticements have nearly doubled between 2019 and 2020, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

While these groups’ motives may be pure, their methods raise concerns for law enforcement. Albany Police Department Chief Marcia Harnden emphasizes the need for a delicate balance between civilian efforts and official law enforcement. “We have to make sure we’re meeting local and state laws,” she says. “It’s always a little bit of a danger when you have civilians involved.”

Many jurisdictions won’t take cases brought by these civilian groups, deeming them a waste of time due to lack of evidence. Some, like the precinct in Albuquerque, have warned them to stop intervening in police work.

Despite these challenges, these groups focus on their successes. Predator Catchers Incorporated claims 150 arrests and 61 convictions from their stings. The Federal Bureau of Investigation encourages the public to be alert online and report suspected child sexual abuse material, but doesn’t comment specifically on civilian groups.

Caitlyn Becker
Caitlyn Becker
National Correspondent.

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