Over 50 online 'sextortion' gang members arrested in Philippines

Several of those arrested are allegedly linked with the case of Daniel Perry, a Scottish teenager who committed suicide after being blackmailed online

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The Independent Online

Police in the Philippines have arrested over 50 suspected members of online extortion syndicates which allegedly targeted victims from across the world including a Scottish teenager who took his own life after being blackmailed.

The “sextortion” gangs predominantly exploited men from Britain, America, Australia and Hong Kong by employing women to strike up online conversations with the victims, who would be enticed into exposing themselves in front of webcams or engaging in lewd chats.

The victims would then be told that the material had been recorded and will be uploaded to the Internet and made public if they do not pay a fee. The syndicates are thought to have duped hundreds of victims, collecting thousands of dollars.

But police investigating the extortion in a number of countries including Britain were able to trace the chats from some of the victims computers back to the Philippines. Following a major international operation backed by Interpol, authorities in the country swooped on a number of organised crime gangs over the past two days.

More than 260 desktop and laptop computers, mobile phones, pornographic materials and other pieces of evidence were seized during the raids by 15 police teams,  Philippine National Police chief Allan Purisima told a news conference in Manila.

Several of the arrests are believed to be linked to the case of Daniel Perry, a 17-year-old mechanic from Dunfermline in Fife, who died in July last year after falling victim to an alleged “sextortion” attempt.

Daniel believed he was speaking to an American girl but was then told by blackmailers that the conversations had been recorded and would be shared with friends and family if he didn’t pay up.

The Interpol supported international operation was codenamed 'strikeback' (Interpol)

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Senior Superintendent Gilbert Sosa, director of the Philippine police Anti-Cybercrime Group, said, adding that many more suspects and extortion gangs remain at large and will be pursued.

Interpol said that one Filipino syndicate, based in Naga city, southeast of Manila, operated with more than 100 members. Hong Kong police also helped identify another “sextortion” syndicate based in Bulacan province, north of Manila.

“The scale of these 'sextortion' networks is massive and run with just one goal in mind, to make money regardless of the terrible emotional damage they inflict on their victims,” said Sanjay Virmani, director of Interpol's Digital Crime Center.

Hong Kong police Inspector Louis Kwan Chung-yin said more than 470 people from Hong Kong were victims last year and about 160 so far this year. A US Embassy official said American military personnel were among those targeted in the US.

Detective Chief Inspector Gary Cunningham, from Police Scotland's specialist crime division, led the investigation into Daniel's death and travelled to Manila to work with the authorities in the Philippines.

“Daniel was a victim of a crime which uses threat and intimidation to coerce people into parting with money,” he said.

“This is an organised criminal activity, which is there for one reason - to generate profit by exploiting the vulnerability of others.

“It's an abhorrent crime and in this case a young man lost his life, which is something his family and friends have to live with. We have been thorough and relentless in our pursuit of answers to why Daniel died.”

Following the arrests, Daniel’s mother, Nicola Perry, said: “The manner of Daniel's death is every parent's worst nightmare. After being targeted by complete strangers online, he was left so traumatised by his ordeal that he chose to take his own life.

“Whoever was at the other end of that computer did not know Daniel. They didn't care that he was a loving and caring person with his whole life ahead of him. To them, he was just another faceless victim to exploit for cash.”