Predator catchers. Video vigilantes. Concerned citizen groups.
That’s how some describe Cameron Decker and a growing number of his fellow YouTube creators who are traveling the country trying to catch alleged sexual predators before an audience of loyal subscribers on the popular video site.
The adults pose online as underage teenagers and wait to be contacted by people — nearly always men — who ask to meet in person for a sexual encounter. Armed with cameras, the YouTube channel hosts then confront the alleged predators and turn over detailed chat transcripts and videos to authorities, hoping police will arrest the offenders.
Then, the self-proclaimed predator catchers post the videos of their amateur stings on their YouTube channels for anyone, including their thousands of subscribers, to watch.
The YouTubers have been praised by supporters, including some law enforcement officials, for helping prosectors charge men who prey on kids. But, others say video vigilantism is a dangerous trend fueled by “clicks” and “likes” on YouTube.
Decker — who runs the YouTube channel MrWeb — and fellow YouTuber Shafiq Blake, who runs Predator Catchers PA, recently teamed up to ensnare 17 men in Atlantic City.
All of the men allegedly thought they were meeting underage teenagers for sex. But they instead met Decker and Blake, who had cameras rolling.
The men, who ranged in age from 23 to 77 and are from seven different states, were each charged with luring, a second-degree crime.
Decker, a Tampa, Florida-area resident with more than 7,000 subscribers to his channel, said he travels to Atlantic County often for his stings because of the positive reception he’s received from law enforcement.
That is far different from how he says he’s often treated by authorities in his home state and elsewhere in New Jersey.
“The police and the district attorneys (in Florida) unfortunately don’t respond to me the same way,” Decker, 32, said in a phone interview last week. “They actually hate that we do this.”
Some New Jersey officials are not thrilled about it either. Officials in one county in the Garden State threatened to seize his video equipment if he attempted to lure and tape alleged sexual predators there, he said.
But Decker has had good luck with other New Jersey police departments, so he continues to set up meetings with alleged predators in the state, he said.
“When I do this I want to be more effective and I want to be able to work with police, so unfortunately I have to drive thousands of miles to places to be able to do this where it actually helps make a difference,” he added.
Blake, the fellow YouTube predator catcher who teamed up with Decker in Atlantic City, could not be reached for comment.
The pair are among a growing number of YouTubers filming their amateur stings in New Jersey and in other states around the nation, but it is unclear how many are doing the work nationwide.
While most of Decker’s videos can be viewed for free in his YouTube channel, he generates revenue by posting some for members only.
Membership prices start at 79 cents a month for “basic” support, he said. There are also membership levels available for $3.99 and $5.59 a month that allow customers to view some live streams, get early access to videos and be the first to see higher-quality Go-Pro footage of his alleged catches.
But he currently only has a few dozen paid members, he said.
Like other YouTube creators with large followings, Decker also receives money from the site when visitors to his page click on ads. He expects YouTube will pay him about $200 per video if he can build his viewership to 10,000 subscribers, a key benchmark on the site.
His videos range from 30 minutes to more than two hours long and show Decker conversing with alleged predators, whose faces are shown. While many of the videos are recorded in dark conditions at night, some of the alleged predators invite Decker into their homes to talk.
When Decker visits New Jersey, he stays in the Toms River area with a subscriber to his YouTube channel who has become a friend. From there, he can make a quick drive to Atlantic City to record his encounters, many of which take place in and around the Boardwalk, a public meeting spot Decker described as “perfect.”
One of his recent “catches” took just 20 minutes from the time Decker received a message from a man on an app to meet, he said. Another man arrested after his recent Atlantic City sting was someone Decker said he had taped previously and was apparently back trying to meet underage teens online.
Decker, who returned to the Atlantic City area last week to try to tape more “catches,” praised local law enforcement officials for being receptive to his help.
“They’re fantastic — Atlantic County as a whole — the prosecutors, the police departments, they’re all phenomenal,” he said. “They’ve been very helpful. Of course they can’t come out and say ‘oh, we need you to come out here and do this’, but I can tell just based off the reception. I think they like what we’re doing, they’re just concerned about our safety.”
While Decker was effusive in his praise of authorities, nearly everyone in law enforcement contacted by NJ Advance Media did not respond to requests to comment on what he and other YouTubers do.
An Atlantic City police spokesman declined a request to speak with Acting Police Chief James A. Sarkos and additionally declined any comment. Egg Harbor Township police, who arrested two men on similar charges last month with the help of Decker and Blake, also declined multiple requests to be interviewed or provide a comment.
A spokesman for Atlantic City mayor Marty Small also declined to comment or make Small available for an interview.
Ventor police have also made two arrests on luring/enticing charges this summer after being contacted by YouTubers, including Decker. When asked about the YouTubers, Ventnor police referred to them simply as “complainants.”
“We look at them on a case-by-case basis just as we would with any other case,” said Ventnor Police Chief Joseph Fussner. “We look at the evidence and see if there’s enough to charge. That’s what we’ve been directed to do by the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office.”
The Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office didn’t respond to emails and phone calls asking for comment.
There’s a good reason that law enforcement officials are reluctant to speak on the topic, according to a legal expert who condemns the actions of Decker and other YouTubers.
“Law enforcement is in a weird position,” said Adam Scott Wandt, a lawyer who is also an an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. “If they didn’t prosecute these people, it would look like they’re soft on child predators. It’s hard for them to admonish this behavior because it will make them look like they’re being sympathetic to child predators.”
“This is a cluster mess for prosecutors,” he added.
Wandt’s primary concern is that YouTube “video vigilantes” engaging with men looking for sex further feeds the predators’ compulsion or “disease” — especially if they end up up not getting arrested.
“I’ve compared it to alcohol,” Wandt said. “You can have an alcoholic who knows they’re an alcoholic and is doing everything they can not to drink. But if somebody comes and offers them a drink that they wouldn’t have ordinarily been exposed to — if they take a sip of that drink, the chances of them taking another drink goes up significantly.”
The video stings may be doing more harm than good, he said.
“My fear is that this behavior by these video vigilantes actually puts children at risk who might not have been at risk if this sting operation didn’t take place,” Wandt said.
Catching predators should be left to law enforcement, he said. Significant resources are pumped into law enforcement efforts to detect child predators, including at the federal level through FBI task forces.
He also noted there are “significant” safety issues when public meetings are arranged, not only for the YouTuber but for people who happen to be in the area.
“God forbid the predator is armed,” Wandt said.
While critics say most YouTubers are trying to catch predators for “likes and clicks,” Decker said he has a more personal reason for doing the work. He is a past victim of sexual abuse.
He later became an avid viewer of the NBC show “To Catch a Predator” and its host, Chris Hansen, he said.
“I grew up watching Chris Hansen and I was always a fan of the show,” Decker said. “I never got justice, so seeing the guys led out in handcuffs, that really mattered to me. And I saw other people doing this on YouTube. I just kind of learned by watching everybody and came up with my own style.”
Decker said he began working as a predator catcher late last year, when he worked as a musician and was an investor in coffee shops. His YouTube work became a full-time job earlier this year, though he only earns enough to cover some expenses.
Decker’s tactics are simple — he posts a fictitious underage profile on dating and chat apps, including Skout, Whisper or Meet24. Then, he waits to be contacted by an adult.
Once an adult reaches out, Decker tries to collect basic information, including the person’s name and age. If the adults send a photo, he tells them his fake age and waits to see how they respond to someone they think is an underage teenager.
“If they talk sexual, I try to remain innocent in my response to them. Once they ask if we can meet up or do something, I’ll take some time (before) setting a meeting spot,” he said.
Decker said he knows meeting up with alleged child predators can be dangerous — noting he had to pepper spray one man recently — but said he’s not worried. He plans to continue trying to catch predators for the foreseeable future.
“I guess I’ll do this as long as it takes — until I can’t catch anyone anymore,” he said.
And for now, New Jersey remains a good place to hunt, he said.
“I don’t think it’ll ever be where I’m not going to catch people. Atlantic City is a revolving door — with new people here every week,” Decker said.
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Jeff Goldman may be reached at email@example.com.