ONLINE Child Abuse Activist Groups are putting innocent people in danger, interfering with police investigations, and risking the course of fair justice.

Those are the views of Detective Inspector Paula Eccles, of North Yorkshire Police’s safeguarding team.

She is urging those involved with such groups, often referred to as, ‘vigilantes’, to leave investigations to the police.

In recent years there has been an increase in the number of these groups nationally, including numerous instances in the force area where groups have live-streamed or posted videos on social media while confronting individuals they believe are involved in grooming children online.

This is usually after using a ‘decoy’ victim, when an adult pretends to be a child online, to interact with potential suspects.

The groups tend to call the police during the confrontation and when social media posts have already been issued.

Det Insp Eccles said this is generally “far too late” to prevent hampering the course of justice, posing a serious risk of harm to everyone involved, including the group members themselves.

She said: “The police service does not endorse online child abuse activist groups and we will not work with them.

“Unlike our highly-trained officers in the Online Abuse & Exploitation Team and the Digital Forensics Unit, they operate without any procedures to keep people safe.

“Accused people can become vulnerable to self-harm and there are cases around the country of people dying by suicide because of the action of such groups.

“Innocent family members can also feel threatened during the confrontations and subsequent harassment, which is a terrible situation to have forced upon them.

“Another grave concern is that some of the activity of these groups is a cover for crimes like blackmail and extortion.”

Det Insp Eccles said: “There is no way of making sure that these groups act on reliable evidence and we have seen instances of the wrong people being targeted such as vulnerable adults.

“This creates unnecessary anguish and diverts vital police resources away from other victims.

“The standard of evidence that is gathered is also often poor, there are issues with legal disclosure, and the way the groups share their evidence publicly online before it has been tested at court.

“Some evidential issues can even cause cases to collapse. This is completely unacceptable.”

She urged people seeking to protect children from abusers online to report their concerns to the police.

Each month nationally the police arrest more than 400 people for child sexual abuse and protect more than 500 children from harm.

North Yorkshire Police has a dedicated Online Abuse and Exploitation Team and a Digital Forensics Unit to target suspected offenders and bring them to justice.

Det Insp Eccles said: “Our specialist police teams have the expertise and experience to carry out thorough, complex and intelligence-led investigations, as well as preparing evidence that can stand up to scrutiny by the Crown Prosecution Service and ultimately presented before a court of law to determine guilt or innocence.

“There is simply no place for reckless vigilante practices when it comes to bringing serious offenders to justice.”

Anyone wishing to reporting suspected crimes and seeking help regarding indecent images of children and sexual abuse should contact the force via 101 or pass on concerns confidentially via Crimestoppers, on (0800) 555111.