SAN DIEGO —
A local group called Creep Catchers Unit goes undercover online to lure alleged child predators. They have a large following on social media and expose their so-called "catches" on their YouTube channel for the public to watch.
According to the unit's leader who goes by the pseudonym Ghost to conceal his identity, the Creep Catchers Unit has over 300 catches throughout Southern California.
Yet, despite the unit's success, local law enforcement says they do not support cyber vigilantes attempting to take justice into their own hands.
CC Unit starts the catch with a decoy account for a fake child, usually under fourteen years old. The conversation usually ends with the alleged predator sending and asking for illicit photos of the child.
“I always wondered how many creeps were in my area. When you catch one, another appears in your inbox,” said Ghost.
CC Unit is on all social media apps including chat rooms, forums, and websites chatting with men who are usually pretending to be teens themselves. When the alleged predator agrees to meet up with the child the camera starts rolling. The interaction is live-streamed on a cell phone for CC Unit’s collective 263 thousand followers on Instagram and YouTube.
“They are shook for sure. Sometimes they run but we follow them so police can identify them,” said Ghost.
Despite his work leading to charges and arrests, most law enforcement agencies do not condone his sting operations.
Sergeant Garrick Nugent with the San Diego Police Department and his team with the Internet Crimes Against Children task force handle child exploitation cases regionally. They conduct similar investigations using decoys.
Sergeant Nugent warns groups like CC Unit that they may be endangering their own safety while pushing predators further underground.
“We have been called to several of the accounts but because there's so much evidence that needs to be collected in those and we are only given a snippet by the individual there at the scene we can't really make an arrest right then and there,” said Nugent.
If a predator is arrested, Sergeant Nugent says prosecuting them could be extremely difficult because CC Unit’s evidence may not stand in a court of law.
“A lot of the chatting they are doing, if we were to be doing it, it would be unlawful. We are forbidden from bringing up anything about sex. If we did, it's entrapment. They do not have to abide by the same rules and regulations that we do,” said Nugent.
“They always approach us. We never make first contact ever,” said Ghost. He is aware of the laws and avoids entrapment, hoping police can use his evidence to prosecute. He hands over his evidence to the police including usernames and video recordings.
“A lot of that is very good information but what we need is for them to actually provide us with their computer and their phones. We need to be able to extract the original recording for evidentiary reasons and they are just not willing to do that,” said Nugent.
Ghost and his team are talking up to 30 predators at a time and don’t want to hand over their phones for a long period of time because it would risk their mission.
“Even if they do make an arrest on these people that we catch, it's up to the DA whether she wants to file the charges or not,” said Ghost.
CC Unit has experienced pushback from the San Diego District Attorney’s Office and no longer conducts catches in San Diego County, but travels north.
“They want me to quit. But I am still going to do it. Whether you arrest them or not, I'm going to still expose them," said Ghost.
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