HAMPSHIRE Police have distanced themselves from ‘vigilante paedophile hunters’ who organise sting operations by setting up fake accounts on social media posing as under-age girls and boys to trap suspects across the UK

The hunters set up a meeting and when they confront their target film the encounter before handing him, or her, over to the police.

The statement came after 54-year-old Mark Gaudion, from Bordon, appeared at Basingstoke Magistrates’ Court, last month, charged with two counts of attempting to arrange or facilitate the commission of a child sex offence and one count of attempting to meet a girl under 16 following grooming.

He was arrested by police after the so-called Predator Hunters group set up a sting operation before confronting Gaudion in a street in the East Hampshire town.

After the arrest a Hampshire Police spokesman said: “We do not, as a force, respond to requests for a position regarding the methods or activity of so-called paedophile hunters.”

Instead they referred to the national guidelines of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and the Association of Chief Police Officers.

In response, the national Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and Association of Chief Police Officers replied in a statement: “While we understand the public’s desire to protect their children from online abuse, we do not encourage action of this kind which can compromise ongoing investigations into paedophile networks and could spark an abuser to further harm a child if they feel threatened.

“Those who take this approach to exposing paedophiles could be breaking the law and may find themselves at the centre of an investigation or prosecution.

“Identifying alleged paedophiles is best left to the police who can ensure vulnerable victims are protected.

“Police forces have reported these cases to Child Exploitation and Online Protection and work with them to investigate the allegations.”

The statement added: “The police rely on the assistance of the public in preventing and detecting crime.

“Working closely with communities is a vital way in which we gain information, and their active engagement in fighting crime helps us do our job.

“Cases involving child sex abuse are extremely serious and have a huge emotional impact, not only on the victims but on whole families, and the communities in which they take place.

“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 investigate and bring people to justice.

“Revealing the identity of suspected paedophiles gives the suspect the opportunity to destroy evidence before the police can investigate them. It also leads to people who have been identified going missing or raising concerns for their safety.

“This can divert significant resources into protecting suspects, which would be better invested in investigating, and where there is evidence, prosecuting them.”

A Predator Hunters spokesman said: “We are a team who follow guidelines to trace, gain evidence and convict paedophiles who target minors (male or female up to the age of 16).”

They do this, he said, by using a range of skills and knowledge which each team member brings.

He said: “This includes qualifications in safeguarding, mental health, IT, security and counselling.

‘We always co-operate with the police and have been commended by them for what we do.

“We offer support to victims both current and historical and if we cannot help we will always signpost or refer to an agency that can.

“We also offer support to the families of the paedophiles as often they are a victim of it all in many ways.

“Our reason for doing this is something close to our hearts for various reasons and we recognise there is not enough being done about scarily huge amounts of men and women preying on our children with the intent of being sexual.

“We do this in our own time, voluntarily, and we fund all costs ourselves.”

A lot of feedback on social media commends the group for their actions in general while vilifying the individuals they expose.

If anyone has concerns about online grooming, they should report them online at www.ceop.police.uk, or to Crimestoppers anonymously by callinng 0800 555111. If you think a child is at immediate risk of harm, call 999, police stress.