In a bid to help those who find themselves being blackmailed by so-called 'sextortionists' the National Crime Agency has launched a new campaign encouraging victims to come forward.
Thousands of people in the UK are likely to be falling victim to sextortion every year, according to the National Crime Agency and National Police Chiefs Council.
But Mid Ulster has seen the devastating consequences of such crime up close, when Clonoe schoolboy Ronan Hughes took his own life after falling prey to such fraud last summer.
He was one of four men who killed themselves across the UK as a result of the cruel scam.
Sextortion is a form of blackmail where criminals use fake identities to befriend victims online and then persuade them to perform sexual acts in front of their webcam or send pictures.
These webcam images are recorded by the criminals who then threaten to share them with the victims’ friends and family unless they are paid. Sometimes there are escalating requests for further payment. At least four suicides in the UK have been linked to this form of blackmail.
The NCA’s Anti-Kidnap and Extortion Unit (AKEU) has been alerted by police forces to 864 cases of financially motivated webcam blackmail so far in 2016*, more than double the figure from the whole of the previous year (385). Officers believe there is likely to be significant under-reporting and that actual numbers are much higher.
Victims in the NCA cases are aged between 14 and 82, with the highest proportion being men aged between 21 and 30, and with a substantial proportion in the 11-20 age group.
In response to the increase, the NCA and NPCC have launched a new campaign to give advice to those who have been, or are likely to be, targeted.
The campaign includes a film aimed at the most vulnerable victims, helping them to recognise a potential criminal approach and providing online advice, including the importance of reporting the crime to their local police.
Roy Sinclair, from the NCA’s AKEU, said: "There is huge under-reporting of these kinds of offences, often because victims feel ashamed or embarrassed, but of course criminals are relying on that reaction in order to succeed.
"This is why we are launching this new campaign. We want victims and potential victims, to know how they can protect themselves and to understand what to do if they are targeted.
"This is still a relatively new and emerging crime type, so the NCA and police are working with the Home Office to get a more accurate picture of the true scale.
"However, the trend is clear. Cases of webcam blackmail – or sextortion – are going up dramatically. As recently as 2012 we were only getting a handful of reports a year, now we’re getting hundreds, and our law enforcement partners across Europe are reporting a similar picture.”
National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead for Kidnap & Extortion and Adult Sexual Offences, Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt said:
“The distress felt is about much more than the potential loss of money or humiliation for some. We have already seen a number of young people tragically resorting to taking their own lives after attempts to blackmail them.
“By raising awareness of the issue we want to reassure victims that the police will take reports seriously. Each report will be dealt with it in confidence with no judgement made.
“Our message to those who are targeted: don’t pay and don’t panic – call us for help. Your safety and welfare will be at the heart of our investigations.”
Police and the NCA have uncovered evidence that organised crime groups, largely based overseas in countries including the Philippines, Ivory Coast and Morocco, are behind a large proportion of sextortion attempts.
Advice for victims
DON’T PANIC - The police will take your case seriously, will deal with it in confidence and will not judge you for being in this situation. You are not alone.
DON’T PAY - Many victims who have paid have continued to get more demands for higher amounts of money. In some cases, even when the demands have been met the offenders will still go on to post the videos. If you have already paid, check to see if the money has been collected. If it has, and if you are able, then make a note of where it was collected from. If it hasn't, cancel the payment.
DON’T COMMUNICATE further with the criminals. Take screen shots of all your communication. Suspend your Facebook account (but don’t delete it) and use the online reporting process to report the matter to Skype, YouTube etc. to have any video blocked and to set up an alert in case the video resurfaces. Deactivating the Facebook account temporarily rather than shutting it down will mean data is preserved and will help police to collect evidence.
PRESERVE EVIDENCE - Make a note of all details provided by the offenders and DO NOT DELETE ANY CORRESPONDENCE.
And finally, remember, you are the victim of organised criminals, you are not alone and confidential support is available.