Growing numbers of people are falling victim to organised gangs who lure them into sending sexually explicit images and then threaten to post the pictures online unless they get payment.
There has been a sharp rise in webcam blackmail, also known as sextortion. The number of cases reported to the police more than doubling between 2015 and 2016, reaching 1,250 last year. This year so far there have been more than 700 cases.
The figures come as the man who blackmailed Ronan Hughes, 17, was jailed for four years. Iulian Enache, 31, shared intimate photos belonging to Ronan after the schoolboy failed to pay a ransom. The teenager killed himself hours afterwards.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) says the true number of sextortion cases could be even larger because many go unreported. It said the issue was high on its agenda.
The NCA put the rise down to better reporting, but also said copycat criminals were inspired by what they read in the media. Some of the gangs involved operated from abroad, it said.
David Jones, the head of the NCA’s anti-kidnap and extortion unit said: “This is a project that is very close to my heart after the sad deaths of four young men because of sextortion reported in recent times. I strongly suspect there may be other suicides linked to it, but I have no evidence for that. It’s just my speculation.
“We are keeping this issue on the public radar, first and foremost … making sure all intelligence packages are collated and gathered together to fully exploit all opportunities to put people before judicial systems.”
The phenomenon has grown with the use of social media. It can affect anyone, but experts say young men are particularly vulnerable. The majority of cases include men aged between 18 and 24, but victims have also been as young as 14. Others have been in their 50s to 80s.
The rising figures are mirrored by an increase in calls to the Revenge Porn helpline, with cases about sextortion rising from 70 in 2015 to 89 in 2016. They predict a 20% rise in cases this year and a 51% increase from 2015 to 2017.
Laura Higgins, who manages the helpline said: “Sextortion can be committed by individuals or international, organised crime groups. Our advice to victims is: do not pay or give the perpetrators anything that is being demanded, keep all messages as evidence, immediately cease all contact with the individual and report the matter to the local police.
“The victims will often feel silly or shamed. This is not the case. The fault is with the perpetrator or perpetrators who have violated the trust of the victim and abused that power as a means of coercion.”
The NCA said evidence suggests that criminal groups operate in the Philippines, the Ivory Coast and Morocco. They pose as young women online and strike up a conversation. They encourage their victims to share explicit photographs and then threaten to share them widely unless they receive payment.
Jones said: “I hope we are on track getting on top of this, but there are likely to be a number of victims who won’t come forward to talk about this because of the embarrassment factor.
“We say don’t do that … for whatever reason people may not have any form of encouragement or confidence to report the issue but what I will say is that this is something we take a serious view of and it will not be tolerated in any form whatsoever.”
Dr Jessica Barker, a cybersecurity expert, said: “Police figures show a big rise but that is likely to be the tip of the iceberg as most people who experience sextortion don’t report it to the police. There is a lot of embarrassment about it and lots of people feeling like it only happens to them.
“With these crimes it’s often criminal gangs, not individuals in their bedroom doing this. These people operate almost like businesses, having office space and teams.”
She said teenage boys seemed to be particularly targeted, but that girls could also be affected. “What I hear from the female point of view is that teenage girls get targeted over Instagram and get messages. So someone will comment on their photo on Instagram and say ‘I am a model agent or talent scout. I am a casting director in Los Angeles and you have the look we want.’ They will exchange messages and build up a rapport and then say ‘we need more photos’ and that will go on until they get the girl to send explicit images and then it reverts to sextortion.”
Vicky Green, the Marie Collins Foundation’s director of strategy and developments said: “We need to educate young people on the skills of manipulation. Often we tell young people ‘don’t post a picture as when you do you lose control of it’. They see that as being to strangers, but what we have witnessed is by the time … the person has obtained the picture the child does not view them as being a stranger but a friend.
“We need to educate young people about the fact that it’s not their fault if they succumb to this and that the responsibility is always on the perpetrator, so the person to blame is not them for sending the photos but the person who asked for the pictures.”
Jon Pearn, 64, from Plymouth: ‘I told the person trying to blackmail me, this is your unlucky day’
I was on my Facebook and someone sent me a friend request and I pressed yes by accident. The person I accepted was supposedly a young lady and they started sending me private messages.
They asked to Skype me and eventually we spoke over that. She asked: “Do you like sex?”. I jokingly replied: “Who doesn’t?” And then she said: “You show me yours and I will show you mine.”
I said OK but as she suggested it, then she should go first. I was shown a woman stripping over Skype and then I showed her a photo of my penis in response.
That’s when the tone changed and the person I was speaking to told me that they were called Angel and they wanted money from me or they would send the pictures to my nieces. I think because we were friends on Facebook they could see my family and knew how to get in touch with them.
Now I look back, I think the clip I saw on Skype may have just been a video of someone. I don’t know, it probably wasn’t real.
The language when I was asked for money was quite threatening. They said: “Pay up of we will ruin your life”. They asked for £500 initially but I said: “Do what you want. I don’t care.” I told them it was their unlucky day as they had messed with the wrong person.
Eventually they lowered their ask to £100 but I still told them to bugger off. I did think that it would have been different if I had been married or in a relationship but I had nothing to lose.
This happened to me two years ago and I went to the police, but I am not sure if the perpetrator was ever caught. My message is, on Facebook don’t friend people you don’t know. If people threaten you, don’t be ashamed tell the police. Tell them to get stuffed.