A Wirral sexual predator who thought he was grooming a 12-year-old girl on Facebook was caught out by a "paedophile hunter" vigilante.

Andrew Smith believed he was talking to a schoolgirl but in fact it was a sting led by a woman called Ann Marie Hatton and the victim “Mary Leask” did not exist.

Liverpool Crown Court heard how Ms Hatton lured Smith by using an image of an American child model as her profile picture - then reported him to the police.

Ms Hatton had received an unsolicited friend request from him on November 6 last year and they began a private inbox conversation and talked between November 7 and 20.

The pair exchanged around 1,900 messages over 11 days - despite ‘Mary' making it clear she was only 12 years old, said Martine Snowden, prosecuting.

The defendant said he was 44 and asked if it was okay for them to talk, before telling her she was "sexy." 

He talked about how she would soon go through puberty and invited her to perform sex acts on him.

Smith said he would like to have sex with her and outlined the dangers of her getting pregnant.

"He said 'if anyone finds out you're pregnant I will get locked up."

Smith then discussed meeting up with her in Liverpool, where he was led to believe she lived.

"He said when her mum was out at work was a good opportunity for them to have sex.” said Miss Snowden.

Smith told police that it was 'Mary' who sent him a friend request. He claimed her profile said she was born in 1963 and did not initially have a picture.

Ms Snowdon said: "He said it was 'all a bit of a laugh to wind her up'. He said he didn't intend to meet her and denied that he had any paedophile tendencies."

When his mobile phone was examined, police found he had also had an "inappropriate conversation" with a 15-year-old girl, but no charges were brought in relation to this.

45-year-old Smith, of Carr Lane, Hoylake, admitted attempting to incite a child under the age of 13 to engage in sexual activity.

Defence barrister Carmel Wilde, said there wasn't "a real victim", which was "perhaps one saving grace".

She said: "This was a group who essentially set themselves up to try and seek out groomers on the internet and that is exactly what happened. Thankfully there hasn't been a victim who has suffered any psychological harm."

Smith has dyslexia, struggled to communicate and relied on his family for support with daily tasks.

She said he was depressed, had not developed any friendships or long-term relationships and "tried to find solace on the internet".

Jailing him for 25 months Judge Norman Norman Wright, QC, said his actions could only be described as "grooming".

He said, "Mary was a fictional identity assumed by a woman, who no doubt must have been motivated by the thought there were sexual predators on the internet.

"She created the false identity of Mary, a 12-year-old girl, and waited to see what happened. You happened."

The judge imposed a ten-year Sexual Harm Prevention Order and ordered him to sign the Sex Offenders Register for the same length of time.