Shane Brannigan sits in the driver's seat of his van, which is parked on the driveway of a large house in an affluent Surrey cul-de-sac. He wears bright yellow braces and a flat cap, and smokes a roll-up cigarette without a filter. He’s a builder by trade, but his real job – his passion – is hunting paedophiles.
Brannigan is not alone. Dozens of paedophile hunting groups have sprung up across the UK in recent years, taking advantage of social media to publicise their activities and publicly denounce their targets. Brannigan’s first sting operation was on the 2nd of February, 2015, a date that seems to be seared into his memory.
"I broke down and I was in a bad way for almost 24 hours because I couldn’t come to terms with the sheer number of these so-called adults that were willing to partake not just in conversation, but almost instant sexually-explicit conversation," he says.
Looking back, the 40-year-old thinks his tough childhood is what drives his work. But ultimately, it was the far-right political group the English Defence League – which has a history of campaigning against grooming gangs – that prompted him to act.
"I was reading a lot about grooming gangs, and I did partake in a couple of demonstrations with, dare I say it, the EDL," he admits. "I wasn't into it because I was right wing, I wasn't into it because I thought what they were saying was right. I partook because I was disgusted by the way the system was systematically failing hundreds if not thousands of children across the UK."
Brannigan claims to have secured 80 convictions for child sex offences over the last three years, including wealthy property fund boss Julius Gottlieb, who was ordered to attend a 100-day sex offenders’ treatment programme and 60 days of rehabilitation in 2016. Not one to mince his words, Brannigan is scathing about the police officers and politicians charged with tackling the problem.
"It's like a milkman going to the job centre and taking a job as an electrician," he says. "Well, he ain’t qualified, but he'll give it a go anyway. The whole system is corrupt."
Not all paedophile hunters agree with these sentiments, and Brannigan undoubtedly takes a hard-line approach. But there’s one thing they all have in common: a fundamental lack of trust in law enforcement and the justice system to catch and convict paedophiles.
The number of self-styled paedophile hunters has grown exponentially in recent years, and there are now said to be more than 75 hunter groups across the UK. With ominous-looking logos, error-riddled online rants and names like "Dark Justice" and "Justice Will Be Served", the groups dedicate their free time to catching men with a sexual interest in children.
When you ask paedophile hunters what motivates them, one response is tragically common. Many of the men and women committed to this cause have had personal experience of sexual abuse, either inflicted on themselves or on their children. More often than not, hunting is an outlet for this personal pain, a method of ensuring that others don’t suffer the same experience, and a way of hitting back at the law enforcement and care systems that failed them.
Hunters storm social media sites and live-streaming apps, setting up fake profiles (known as "decoys") and posing as underage children. Then they lie in wait.
"I have 15 decoys on the go at the moment, which will attract about 150 predators," says Danni Gallo, founder of Leeds-based hunting group Net Justice. "They’ve all sent sexual photos to what they thought are children."
What happens next differs from group to group. Some will simply report the predator to the social media site. Some will take screenshots of the conversations and hand the evidence over to the police. Others will publish the screenshots on their website or Facebook page. The most bloodthirsty, though, will arrange a "sting".
A meet-up is organised, usually at busy public locations such as train stations or shopping centres. When the unsuspecting paedophile arrives, he is met by an angry group of hunters, who film the encounter and post it online, much to the satisfaction of their baying followers. If they're lucky, the tabloids will pick up the footage and report on it.
The visceral anger the hunters feel towards these offenders is clear to see. "I'd like to give them a good kicking, but you can't do that," says Gallo. "I draw the line at violence."
The rise of paedophile hunters has not happened in isolation. According to evidence given to the ongoing Independent Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse, the number of incidents of online child sexual abuse referred to the Metropolitan police has increased by 700 percent since 2014.
This astronomical increase is due in part to a growing awareness of the problem. Scandals involving high-profile individuals such as Jimmy Savile and football coach Barry Bennell have thrust the issue into the limelight, and increased victim confidence may have contributed to the rise in reported offences. But at the heart of the problem is the growing popularity of social media sites and live-streaming apps, which have created a haven for predators to manipulate children with alarming ease and speed.
A 2017 Ofcom report revealed that almost a quarter (23 percent) of 8 to 11-year-olds, and almost three-quarters (74 percent) of 12 to 15-year-olds, have a social media profile, and the number of children going online is increasing every year.
Sarah Champion, MP for Rotherham, is a vocal and outspoken campaigner for child protection. She points to social media as a fundamental cause of online abuse, saying: "Social media sites have enabled the rapid proliferation of online grooming and abuse. Before, perpetrators would groom one or two children over the course of years; now, they can send 1,000 messages rapidly within minutes."
When Hunting Goes Wrong
Though many paedophile hunters have good intentions, their methods have been the subject of huge controversy. Last year, a fight broke out at Bluewater shopping centre in Kent after paedophile hunters violently assaulted a man they suspected of grooming a 14-year-old girl, while three vigilantes in Northern Ireland were charged in March on counts including false imprisonment and common assault.
Even after non-violent stings the consequences can be disastrous. In October of 2017, 43-year-old David Baker committed suicide three days after being confronted by a Southampton-based hunter group named Trap.
"There’s nothing we can do about suicides, although if it happened to one of the guys we stung I might feel bad," admits Gallo. "A couple of times people have threatened to harm themselves. For me, it's an admission of guilt – it’s taking the coward’s way out."
Nevertheless, many criticise the actions of hunters as "trial by social media". There are no safeguards in place in the case of wrongful accusations, while the publication of the accused offender's address often puts their family at risk. What’s more, the active social media presence of these groups means they are often accused of attention-seeking and righteous self-promotion.
But now a new phenomenon is emerging. As the hunting groups and their egos grow larger, tensions have begun to break out. Internecine disputes between groups are now common, as they argue about the best methods and vie for prominence in the increasingly cramped hunter landscape.
In a rambling Facebook post in January, hunter group Dark Justice complained about their name being "dragged through the media" due to the behaviour of other hunters, before criticising other groups for thinking paedophile hunting is "some sort of entertainment".
Brannigan has also found himself at the centre of one of these quarrels, and claims members of rival groups have targeted him with a smear campaign.
"These people are doing this publicly, threatening to beat me up," he says. "Why's it alright for them and not me? It’s just unfortunate that all this stuff going on is just making me angry. I’m doing myself no fucking favours, so I’ve got to disappear from the front line now."
With hunter groups descending into civil war, and the increasing numbers of offences going virtually unchecked, the situation is far from under control.
Jim Gamble sits in a smart glass-walled meeting room in the Guildhall Buildings in London. The former chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command (CEOP) has devoted much of his career to protecting children online. He left CEOP in 2010 in protest against then Home Secretary Theresa May’s decision to merge the organisation with the National Crime Agency, a decision he jokes he’s been "punished for" ever since.
Gamble talks loquaciously and passionately about his current role as CEO of the specialist safeguarding organisation Ineqe. It's clear he’s concerned about the rise in offences, but also about cuts to the police force that have seen the number of officers reduced by 21,500 since 2010, as well as a shortfall in social care that’s expected to reach £2 billion by 2020.
"There's a tsunami of activity online carried out by motivated predators who are out there seeking to download images or groom children and meet them offline," he says, "and we’ve a shrinking resource from a criminal justice perspective."
The reality of the situation, it seems, is that the police are simply unable to cope with the sheer scale of the problem. The soaring numbers of offenders and vigilantes has created an almost lawless online domain in which the police have limited power.
Significantly, senior police officers haven’t denied the extent of the crisis. The National Police Chiefs' Council lead on child protection, Simon Bailey, stated last year that the police had reached "saturation point", and suggested that low-risk paedophiles should be spared jail to ease the pressure on law enforcement.
Bailey, who leads Operation Hydrant, the inquiry into historic child sexual abuse, told the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme in February that online grooming is "one of the greatest threats we currently face from a policing perspective". (Simon Bailey declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Yet the volume of offences is not the only aspect causing difficulties for police, as questions have also been raised about their competence in dealing with reports of sexual crimes against children.
In previous years, police officers received training from CEOP, administered through the University of Central Lancashire. But this scheme was discontinued after the organisation merged with the NCA.
All but one police force in the country failed to disclose how many of their officers have received CEOP training since 2015, citing national security issues. A spokesperson for one force stated there is "sensitivity surrounding officer numbers" with respect to CEOP training courses.
Derbyshire Constabulary, the only force to respond to the Freedom of Information request, revealed that none of its 1,730 officers had received CEOP training in the last three years.
A spokesperson for Derbyshire police said: "As a force we are currently looking at whether the CEOP training may be suitable for our initial training of front line officers. Our detectives that work within the area of child abuse and child exploitation carry out specific training and attend the Specialist Child Abuse Investigators Development Programme."
And while the official line from the police is that the actions of paedophile hunters can undermine their investigations and put victims at risk, the attitude of officers seems quite different in practice.
"We have a fantastic relationship with the police on the ground," claims Gallo. "They pat us on the back and shake our hands, but never in public. They have to toe the party line, which is no contact with us."
Moreover, the techniques of paedophile hunters, however questionable, are undeniably effective.
Responses to a Freedom of Information request from 21 police forces in England showed that, on average, just over a fifth (22.5 percent) of recorded offences of meeting a child following online grooming since 2015 were brought by paedophile hunters.
Interestingly, the statistics vary dramatically across the country. In Northumbria, 59 percent of these offences used evidence gathered by paedophile hunters, while in Dorset this figure is just 5 percent.
Regardless, paedophile hunters see the work they do as vital, and some have even suggested that they could cooperate with police. The idea that paedophile hunters could be employed as volunteer police officers (known as "special constables") is one that Jim Gamble endorses, albeit after a careful recruitment and vetting process – but the founder of Net Justice is less convinced.
"I'd be very sceptical," says Gallo. "They’ve talked about making special constables, but I’m not sure. Working with the police – yes. Working for the police – no. With the same red tape they have we’d become inefficient. We can do what we do because we’re not the police."
Although Chief Constable Bailey has entertained the idea of collaboration with hunter groups, it seems unlikely this set-up would work in practice.
Moreover, an internal police memo obtained by The Times in January suggests that detectives have been instructed to crack down on vigilantism, a prospect to which Gallo reacts badly.
"Once they close these teams down, that’s when they’ll see the real vigilantes," he says. "People will start doing it the wrong way."
The Blame Game
With child sexual abuse hitting crisis levels, no one wants to take responsibility. Politicians frequently blame the social media companies and tech giants, whose websites and apps provide the platform for online grooming. The sites are not doing enough, they say, to protect children online and block predators.
Aside from the famous names, such as Facebook and Snapchat, predators frequently use smaller messaging apps such as Kik, which Gamble describes as the "predator’s app of choice". (A spokesperson for Kik said: "We take online safety very seriously, and we’re constantly assessing and improving our trust and safety measures," adding that the company has just committed $10 million (£7 million) to safety, and brought on a safety advisory board.)
Sarah Champion MP agrees with the need to improve safety on social media sites, saying that safeguards can be built into the software and that, eventually, it could become commercially attractive for the companies.
But others dismiss the blaming of social media sites as a cop-out, and say the responsibility lies with the government and law enforcement. While the government flaunts the rhetoric of its "Every Child Matters" campaign, the real issue, as ever, comes down to money.
"In this austere environment it’s easy to say children are important, but look at some of the big police budgets," says Gamble.
The National Crime Agency’s total budget for 2017-2018 is £436.9 million. Only £14.5 million of that is allocated to CEOP. For Gamble, this figure is simply not enough. "If Donald Trump comes to the UK – and I hope he doesn’t – we’ll spend more than that in a few days delivering his security," he says. "So we need to get our priorities right, and I think this government are good at talk, but very, very bad at leading by example and actually making a real investment."
The Role of Parents
Despite the bickering and finger pointing, all those involved in safeguarding children seem to agree on one point: parents are the front line in child protection, and it’s vital that they know how to keep their children safe online.
While parents will instinctively teach their children how to stay safe in the real world, educating them on online safety is not yet a social norm. Jim Gamble explains the work done at Ineqe is often focused on this virtual childproofing.
"Whenever your child is born, you put stair guards up, you put covers on the electric sockets, you put cupboard locks on. Well, actually, configuring your home by using the best parental controls on the broadband and the Wi-Fi, making the device safe with the best settings on it that inhibit them from accessing videos that are over a particular age rating – those are the things you do to prepare."
Even the paedophile hunters, whose techniques often appear more about retribution than protection, are adamant that parents need to learn these skills.
"It needs to be the top priority of parents," says Gallo. "It doesn’t matter how complicated these apps are. For the safety of your children you need to know about these things."
Shane Brannigan, too, recognises the importance of educating parents. Tired from the stresses and dangers of an illustrious career in paedophile hunting (Gallo describes him fondly as "one of the originals"), he’s decided to call it a day. He won’t be doing any more stings, he says, but has set up his own website and will concentrate his time and effort on raising awareness.
"I just want to make a difference for young people. Education is free. That’s what I want to do – I want to educate the educated."