This article originally appeared on VICE France.
Neila strides towards us briskly, holding a pack of Marlboro Reds in her right hand. She’s dressed all in black, but for a few strands of red hair poking out from her hoodie. We meet in a residential neighbourhood, just outside the city of Lyon, and while the setting is ordinary enough, Neila is anything but: By day, she works as a cleaner; by night, she hunts paedophiles on the internet.
It all started in 2019, when Neila – who asks not to be named in full out of fears for her safety – watched Zandvoort, le fichier de la honte (Zandvoort, the File of Shame). The documentary follows a case of child pornography sold online by a German man living in the Netherlands. Neila was so sickened by what she saw that, the next day, she took matters into her own hands.
She spent hours researching child abuse, until she came across a man who tracks down paedophiles on the internet. He goes by the pseudonym Steven Moore, inspired by left-wing activist and director Michael Moore, to protect his privacy.
Originally from the French island of Réunion, off the coast of Madagascar, Moore created a fake Facebook profile using his young daughter’s information under the name of “Alicia”. His method is simple: he lets criminals approach him and send him sexually explicit messages, before reporting them to the police.
That same day, Neila joined forces and Team Moore was born. It now counts around 50 members across France, Belgium, Canada, Réunion and Mauritius. Among them are secretaries, engineers, lawyers; regular people whose work has led to 65 arrests and 26 convictions since 2019, including two years of prison time for one abuser.
The team has created tens of fake teen profiles on Facebook. Neila only posts her own photos, using a filter that makes her look 20 years younger. She never sends messages first. (That’s illegal in France.) She simply sets up a credible profile - complete with holiday photos, hobbies, sports and public posts - then waits for people to contact her. “I spend between 40 and 50 hours a week on it,” she says.
Neila shows us her latest profile. Under the guise of Lucie, 13, she’s received hundreds of pornographic messages, photos, and videos from men between the ages of 17 and 85. On average, she says, they’re usually in their 50s.
Seeing the extent of the messages was toe-curling. (The names of all the men Neila spoke to have been anonymised for legal reasons.) Pierre told her: “I’m in the shower, I wish you were in here with me […] I’ll teach you how to feel pleasure” and signs off with: “Love has no age”. Neila hears that phrase pretty much every day.
Sylvain was even more explicit: “Show me your pussy. Where do you live? […] Have you already seen a man’s banana? Your daddy has one too, mine is very big.”
There are two main categories of people who contact Neila – those who are overtly abusive and, for example, instantly send her videos of them masturbating; then there’s the fake guardian angels, the most dangerous group. “They try to manipulate the child by telling them they’re falling in love with them,” she says. “It’s classic exploitation.”
Neila screenshots every sexual message she receives. Then, she puts all her evidence in a file containing their identity, age, profession and address. “I give these documents to the police and they transfer them to the prosecutor,” she says. “It’s real investigative work that I’ve learned on the job.”
Naturally, the pressure is too much sometimes. In May 2021, she received an extremely violent video from a user named Franck. “You could see him raping a child,” she says. “I was in shock, I started sobbing…” Two days later, Neila alerted the police and eventually they arrested Franck at the end of November 2021. Today, the man is still free while awaiting trial.
Neila has personal experience of childhood sexual abuse. She was inappropriately touched by a friend of her family’s when she was just 11-years-old. “Now, I prefer to be the person enduring these explicit photos, rather than a child,” she says. “Teens use social media – it’s perfectly normal. Unfortunately, predators are wherever kids gather.”
The internet, after all, has no constitution. “You can find anything on the dark web, including a child being raped,” says Homayra Sellier, president of the anti-child-abuse organisation, Innocence in Danger. “When Team Moore alerts us to a case, we activate the legal proceedings. Their work is essential. It saves us time, which is particularly precious when children are involved.”
According to Paris-based lawyer Nathalie Bucquet, the main difficulty lies in supporting the minors while they’re caught up in the psychological bind of abuse. In some cases, they may have sent their abusers pictures of themselves and feel like they can’t ask for help as a result. At this point, they’re particularly vulnerable to blackmailing.
“Some minors really struggle to get out of that,” says Bucquet. “They feel like they can’t tell their parents, so the situation just keep closing in on them.”
Despite the work of lawyers, NGOs and activist groups, we’re still nowhere close to finding a solution to this epidemic. “There has been an explosion of child abuse on the internet, specifically of streams showing children being raped,” says Bucquet. “It’s sexual tourism, behind the screen.”