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British police express concern over online group of self-styled pedophile hunters

A British band of self-styled pedophile hunters has been ambushing men it believes are out to meet young girls, posting video of the confrontations to the Web in a tactic which has yielded arrests — but alarmed police.

Letzgo Hunting says its members pose as teenage girls online in an effort to lure would-be child abusers into the open — where they're met with a camera. Police in the Leicestershire and West Midlands areas of central England acknowledged that five suspects aged 24 to 54 had been arrested in connection with the group's activities, but warned that the stings could backfire.

"Unfortunately, these kinds of public 'naming and shaming' activities can actually have a negative (effect) on victims of child abuse," Leicester Police said in a statement Monday. "While we understand the strong feelings that motivate this kind of activity, it can seriously affect the chances of success in court, preventing victims from getting justice and increasing the chances of offenders walking free."

It's not entirely clear who makes up the group, where it is based, or when it was founded — attempts to reach various members of Letzgo Hunting through their website and their Facebook pages weren't immediately successful — but their videos laid bare their modus operandi.

In one video posted to the Internet last month, a man is seen being confronted on a footpath by someone who identifies himself as being one of several "pedophile hunters."

When the startled man denies being there to meet a girl for sex, his accuser contradicts him.

"You were talking to myself, not a 14-year-old girl, so I know exactly what's been said," the accuser says, before adding that the footage will be turned over to police — and posted online.

"Your face will be on the Internet," the man is told.

Freelance sting operations of this nature have been taking place since the late 1990s, said Laura Huey, a cyberpolicing expert at the University of Western Ontario. But she said the British group's organization — its website, its cameraman, and its apparent support staff — was a new twist.

She noted that broadcast media had also pulled off similar stunts — making the business of enticing suspected pedophiles out from behind their keyboards and unmasking them in public appear "fun and interesting."

But she said the stings were fraught with risk because self-appointed detectives could fall foul of police procedure or mishandle key evidence.

"A good attorney could easily exploit that to get someone off on a charge," she said.

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Raphael Satter can be reached at: http://raphae.li/twitter

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