Evidence from vigilantes known as “paedophile hunters” was used to charge suspects on at least 150 occasions last year, new data has revealed.
Figures published by the BBC revealed there has been a seven-fold increase in the use of evidence sourced by amateur detectives since 2015.
Two-thirds of the 43 police forces in England and Wales provided data, which showed that in almost half of child sexual grooming prosecutions evidence supplied by vigilantes was used.
The data only confirmed that the vigilante evidence formed part of the decision to charge a suspect, and did not suggest it was the sole reason for criminal action, the Press Association reported.
The rise in cases that rely on this evidence comes despite police chiefs warning of “significant risks” that arise from paedophile hunters’ tactics.
These can include vigilantes posing as children online to lure in suspects, and setting up real-world encounters in order to expose them.
In 2014, Channel 4 documentary-makers followed a group of online vigilantes who engaged men in conversations on 18+ sites while pretending to be children.
‘The Peadophile Hunter’ showed Stinson Hunter and his team set up meetings with unsuspecting men before confronting them with their evidence.
Some officers fear that these actions could interfere with legitimate surveillance operations, while the evidence they gather may not be of a high enough standard to use in a criminal prosecution.
In March, an inquest heard that a man from Southampton killed himself after he was caught in a sting operation by online paedophile hunters.
In January, a former police chief told the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse that masquerading as a child online should become a criminal offence to help snare predators, while also deterring vigilante paedophile hunters.
Jim Gamble said the crude methods used by amateur detectives should instead be taught to a “citizen’s army” of volunteers under police guidance.