Do We Need Someone to Catch the Creep Catchers?

The vigilante groups who wage war against suspected sexual predators often miss their mark—and one B.C. man is out to expose the collateral damage they cause.

Sean Smith is no longer surprised by the emails.

Over the past year they’ve increased in frequency, and these days the educational consultant from Campbell River is up to about four a month. Each message is a plea for help from someone about to be publicly accused of a horrific crime—not by police, but by vigilante groups bent on ridding the internet of would-be sexual predators.

It might seem an admirable goal, save for the fact that not everyone the groups target with their high-profile “sting” operations—posing as underage teens on dating sites, arranging public meetings, then posting videos of the confrontation on their websites—has criminal intentions. Though popular with supporters online, these public humiliation campaigns rarely lead to arrest and conviction. More often than not, they simply result in ruined lives, tarnished reputations and, in extreme cases, thwarted investigations by actual law enforcement. For Smith, that puts these vigilante groups squarely in the wrong.

“It’s got absolutely nothing to do with the greater good of stopping child predation. It has everything to do with ‘How famous can I get for doing this thing?’”

“You know, I just received an email,” he says, interrupting himself as we speak. “‘Hello sir. I’m a recent victim of entrapment by SCC; please advise me on what I should do to stop them from publicizing the video. What lawyer would you suggest I use?’”

While so-called “creep catcher” groups have sprung up across the Lower Mainland and Canada in recent years, the Surrey Creep Catchers, or SCC, have achieved a particular level of infamy. President Ryan Laforge is facing at least two defamation suits (one from Smith after Laforge accused him of pedophilia for criticizing the group), as well as a handful of assault charges stemming from the SCC’s entrapment schemes. Meanwhile, an investigation by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) found the SCC violated the privacy of two men it targeted who arranged to meet what they thought was an underage girl. In July, the OIPC ordered the group to remove videos and chat logs pertaining to the men from its website, but Laforge, who did not respond to an interview request, has publicly said he has no intention of complying. It’s this disregard for the rule of law, as well as the perversion of a central tenet of our justice system—innocent until proven guilty—that really gets Smith.

That, and how the tactics employed by these catchers—“false accusations, incitement of a mob, using social media for shaming” (Smith rattles these off like bullet points from a lesson plan)—are the antithesis of what he teaches children in school workshops on safe and responsible use of social media. It’s his job to explain how damage done online can have devastating implications in the real world—and the human toll exacted by the catcher groups provides plenty of proof: a 21-year-old mentally disabled Burnaby man was fired from his job earlier this year after hoping to meet a girlfriend on a dating app, an Edmonton woman—herself a victim of child abuse—committed suicide over fallout from a creep catcher confrontation in late 2016, and a man under investigation by actual police fled to Winnipeg after being “busted” by an Alberta creep catcher group. There he was charged with molesting two children, but police said he could have been arrested sooner had the creep catchers not gotten to him first. The callous disregard for the impact of their actions has Smith convinced these vigilante groups have confused justice for something more akin to reality TV.

“It’s got absolutely nothing to do with the greater good of stopping child predation. It has everything to do with ‘How famous can I get for doing this thing?’” he says. “That should be enough to tell the public they don’t want these people out there protecting them from the bad guys.”

Creep catcher groups only reinforce a hysteria surrounding pedophilia that does more to increase victimization than mitigate it.

And yet, the groups have ardent supporters who view the catchers as heroes, doing vital work they perceive police either can’t or won’t do. 

But Mike MacFarlane, a retired Vancouver police officer who spent his career posing as a little girl in adult chat rooms, says creep catchers don’t help. Simply finding someone you think is a “creep” isn’t enough, he says, noting vigilantes have nowhere near the training necessary to collect evidence that can stand up in court. MacFarlane’s career saw him attend myriad conferences, lectures and seminars in order to properly investigate suspected predators, and a single wrong step—appearing to initiate sexual talk, revealing his “age” in the wrong way or at the wrong time—could nullify months of work. “All of your chat logs you have to present to court,” he explains. “And they go through those with a fine-toothed comb.”

On top of that, Toronto sex specialist Dr. James Cantor argues creep catcher groups only reinforce a hysteria surrounding pedophilia that does more to increase victimization than mitigate it. Therapists are required to report a client to police only if a child is in danger, Cantor explains, but they often report anyone who admits to harbouring these attractions. As a result, many pedophiles don’t feel they can seek help from mental health professionals without risking legal repercussions, and the mentality of demonization, evinced in the extreme by creep catchers, drives those individuals deeper underground until they do offend. “It’s like we’re daring them to do it,” he says.

So how do you stop vigilante groups that seem immune to legal injunctions or public criticism? Smith has made it a personal mission to fight back with facts. His website, Truth About Creep Catchers, is a detailed repository of police stats on successful arrests of suspected predators, as well as the failings of vigilante catches to stand up in court. It’s also a place for Smith to engage with creep catcher supporters and, most importantly, to show that he, for one, won’t be shamed into silence.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he says. “I’m going to be their worst goddamn nightmare.”