A paedophile-hunting group which has helped to expose child sex offenders on Wearside said today that the issue of online grooming is “rife” in Sunderland.
Guardians of the North insist that they and other similar organisations are the main reason that more people are being prosecuted for grooming children online.
We reported this week that the number of child sexual offences committed on the internet in the Northumbria Police area more than trebled last year, new figures revealed.
Statistics from the NSPCC show there were 323 incidents in 2016-17, up from 98 over the previous 12 months, a shocking rise of 229.5%.
Last year a total 5,653 sex crimes committed nationally against children as young as three had an online element.
But Guardians of the North say they and similar groups are the main reason as to why more perverts are being snared.
Police today said they while they do not advocate the type of action the groups carry out, they “continue to have discussions with representatives” of the organisations.
The group members set up fake profiles to be contacted by those looking to groom children before arranging to meet up and make police aware.
“A lot of the convictions being made against people are because of the work of Guardians of the North and Dark Justice, which is also based in the North East,” said a spokesman for Guardians of the North.
“The numbers of people involved in this kind of activity is staggering and parents need to be aware of it.
“We have caught around 30 people from around the Sunderland area since we started just over a year ago, and the number is 94 in total.
“There are 30 waiting to go through the court process.
“It is unbelievable the amount of people that are willing to meet children for underage sex.
“The police are saying they are preventing this from happening, but it’s because these people are drawn in by our fake profiles that they are being caught.”
Guardians of the North’s most recent Sunderland case saw Paul Southern but behind bars after he was twice caught out inviting children to his home for sex by the group.
Southern thought he was chatting to underage teenage boys on gay dating website Grindr - but had been duped by Guardians of the North, who had set up fake profiles.
In September last year the 38-year-old contacted a profile claiming to be a male named “Ryan” and was told boy was just 14.
Despite believing he was messaging a child, Southern invited “Ryan” to his home, engaged in explicit sexual chat and even offered to pay for him to travel there by cab.
At Newcastle Crown Court Southern, of Dinsdale Street South, Ryhope, admitted two charges of attempting to incite a child to engage in sexual activity.
He was sentenced to 21 months behind bars with a lifelong sexual harm prevention order and 10 years on the sex offenders register.
‘We’re not vigilantes’
Southern is one of a number of Wearside-based perverts to have been uncovered by Guardians of the North.
Some critics have described Guardians of the North and Dark Justice as “vigilantes”, something which they deny being.
“People are entitled to their opinion,” said the Guardians of the North spokesman, “but my idea of a vigilante would be someone who would go out, take people away and beat them up.
“We gather evidence and arrange to meet up with these paedophiles before handing everything over to the police.
“We also normally have police on standby when we go out to meet these people.”
The group have also stressed that they want parents to be more aware of their children’s online activity.
“This problem is rife and it’s getting worse,” said the spokesman.
“We just want to raise awareness because some parents don’t check their kids’ computers at all and they should be.
“Children should be safe in their own homes.”
Detective chief superintendent Lisa Orchard said: “We continue to have discussions with representatives of Dark Justice and Guardians of the North about the activity they are involved in.
“They know that we do not advocate this type of action and our message has always been that members of the public should not try and take the law into their own hands.
“We understand the desire to protect children but any member of the public who has information about child sexual abuse, online or otherwise, should get in contact with the police so we can bring people to justice.
“We work with communities to encourage reporting of suspected sexual offences and we also use information and intelligence from communities to carry out investigations and make arrests in connection with any sexual offences.”