The teenagers — dressed as Batman and the Flash — posted videos of their confrontations with men arriving at rendezvous points arranged after they posed as 15-year-old girls online.
Using fake pictures they got from the Internet and going on the dating website Plenty of Fish, the teenagers started online conversations, pretended they were teenage girls and arranged to meet the men in public places like a parking lot or a restaurant.
The teens then confronted the men and accused them of being pedophiles while filming the encounter. The videos were later posted on YouTube under the header “To Troll a Predator.”
“You Plenty of Fish?” asked the masked Batman character in one of the videos taken at night during a confrontation with one man.
“Oh my God, what are you doing?” said the man.
“You just got trolled.”
The trio had picked up a loyal following on YouTube and posted four encounters with men they claimed to have caught. In one video, a man at a playground is confronted by the Batman character.
“You here for the underage girl?”
The RCMP this week found out what the trio was doing and shut down its crime-fighting efforts after learning that the teenagers identified themselves as working with the police.
Corporal Tammy Hollingsworth with the Chilliwack RCMP said investigators are looking into the evidence gathered by the teenagers and have talked to them and their parents. Two of the boys are 17 and the third is 18. All still live at home with their parents.
Hollingworth said when she first saw the videos, she was surprised.
“I thought wow and right away thought what are these kids doing? This is a police job, not something they should be taking into their own hands. It’s not something the RCMP would condone.”
The RCMP has used online chats to lure sexual predators disguising themselves as underage girls but Hollingsworth said the environment is controlled.
Corporal Mat Van Laer with the integrated child exploitation unit said not only did the teenagers put themselves at risk but also led potentially dangerous offenders out into the open.
“If you are dealing with someone who has a sexual interest in children, that’s not going to disappear. If we are careless and we are fuelling that deviancy in one shape or form, God knows what may happen,” he said. “You don’t want that type of deviance being enticed.”
The teenagers didn’t have any malicious intent, said Van Laer, but also didn’t realize there would be consequences to their actions.
The police have ordered the YouTube videos to be removed for privacy reasons. Although they were taken down officially, copies have been reposted.
Rosalind Prober, executive director of Beyond Borders, a non-profit that aims to end child pornography, prostitution and trafficking of children for sexual purposes, said Wednesday that the superhero teenagers were trying to do what officials at Penn State failed to do.
“There, people did absolutely nothing to stop sexual exploitation and here we have young people crossing the line into vigilante justice,” she said.
She said she’s not surprised at the support the teenagers are getting online from people who say not enough is being done to jail sexual predators.
Criminologist Sara Smyth, who specializes in computer crime at Simon Fraser University, said the trio discovered what police have long known: that predators are always looking for ways to connect with kids online.
“We know this is prolific on the Internet and these young people may have felt they wanted to take a stand and to help fight for justice and so on,” she said. “But they may also be doing this for some kind of personal gratification that they too could be real-life superheroes.”