OCAGs and online fraud – how can people with a learning disability be protected?

by Rod Landman, ARC England Training Lead

For people not familiar with the term OCAGs, it stands for Online Child Abuse Activist Groups. The term was coined by the Police to describe groups of self-styled online ‘paedo-hunters’. These self-appointed guardians of public safety concoct fake online profiles and use them to entrap men they believe are seeking sexual relationships with underage girls. Once a target has been established men are then invited to meet the non-existent girl in a public space. These ‘stings’/confrontations are then live-streamed and/or filmed with the footage uploaded to social media.

Whilst the work of OCAGs does sometimes result in genuine paedophiles being prosecuted, the Police acknowledge a range of issues that create problems for law enforcement.

However, awareness is growing of the large numbers of men with learning disabilities who have been entrapped in this way. Anecdotally, from numerous conversations with ARC members and others, we now believe that a majority of OCAG targets have learning disabilities. We also believe that a majority of these men had no idea what was going on, having mis-read signals, and often genuinely believing that they had just made a new friend and have absolutely no paedophilic intent.

Numerous miscarriages of justice appear to be taking place. Beyond that, ARC members have described the lives of supported people being destroyed (once they have been tarred with the ‘paedo’ brush), as well as that of their families. Some ARC members have seen shared accommodation, people’s housemates and staff being targeted once pictures of the target’s home have been published on social media.

Online Fraud

I have had recent conversations with ARC England members about a significant uptick in online fraud involving people with learning disabilities. There does seem to be a significant increase in supported people being targeted on social media.

Approaches are often via Facebook and X (Twitter) from third parties once a supported person has posted a response to something they have read. This might be along the lines of, “I saw what you wrote and that’s how I feel too”. These replies are attempts at creating empathy and a quick route to a foot in the door, with financial or romance scams hot on their heels. Those targeted are people who have capacity for most of their decisions, and the Police often follow the “it was their choice” line. This response is inappropriate and unhelpful and sadly shows a profound lack of understanding of the needs of people with a learning disability.

It has also been suggested to me that the ridiculously obvious scams that we all see every day, with their giveaway misspellings and terrible grammar, are actually constructed in that way as a deliberate filter, allowing the scammers to target people with learning disabilities and difficulties. If this is true, it is despicable behaviour that needs to be stamped out.

What can we do about OCAGs and online fraud?

We at ARC England have partnered with Community Integrated Care (CIC) and national Police leads to address the issue of OCAGs.

We have submitted a series of Freedom of information requests to the Police, CPS and Probation to attempt to verify our suspicion that a high proportion of the people targeted by OCAGs have learning disabilities. We are hopeful that the resultant evidence base will help us plot a route forwards.

Additionally, in 2023 we launched our new co-produced training on Online Harms. Workshops have been well attended and the evaluation data is strong.

Our training takes the line that it is pointless, unethical, possibly unlawful and actually counter-productive to remove devices from supported people. Banning stuff doesn’t work. It actually makes it more attractive to people and they may seek out ways to get online in secret, which means that if they get into trouble online at a later date then you are far less likely to hear about it.

Instead, we believe service providers need to follow an approach that trusts people, empowers them, and creates a culture in which disclosures are more likely.

It is also a question of applying simple rules consistently, throughout a person’s support network. I have recently become interested in the idea of applying Dave Hingsburger’s ‘Ring of Safety’ model in this arena. This model proved central to the activity we undertook in the Helping Each Other project on sexual exploitation. Dave developed his model in the 1990’s to address the hugely disproportionate rate of sexual abuse experienced by people with learning disabilities. It’s really not too big of a leap to see how many of the same learning applies to Online Harms.

It is an area I am continuing to research, but it seems to me that people are much less likely to engage in risky online behaviour if they have good self-esteem, the confidence to say no, a good digital education, healthy outlets for their online lives, and someone in their life who really listens to them. I plan to continue my work on this in the coming months – please do get in touch if you are interested in joining the conversation.

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