At least five British men and boys have killed themselves after falling victims to online “sextortion”, as criminal gangs target more people than ever before.
Police are appealing for people to seek help in confidence if they are affected by the crime, which is affecting thousands of people in the UK every year and feared to be significantly underreported.
The scam sees victims conned into believing they are talking online to an attractive person, who encourages them to perform a sexual act on webcam as they play a pre-recorded video purporting to be doing the same.
But the target is covertly recorded and the images are then used to blackmail them into paying large sums of money to prevent them being published online or sent to their loved ones.
Among the victims is 17-year-old Ronan Hughes from County Tyrone in Northern Ireland.
A Romanian gang tricked him into sending intimate photographs of himself by posing as a girl called “Emily Magee” in June 2015.
They then sent them to his friends because he was unable to pay a €3,000 (£2,600) ransom.
Hours after they were shared online, Ronan – remembered as a “happy-go-lucky” and loved teenager – killed himself.
An international investigation later traced the culprits to the Romanian city of Timisoara and saw the ringleader jailed for four years, while sextortion rings have also been uncovered operating on an “industrial scale” from call centre-style offices in the Philippines.
Investigators believe the problem is rising globally, and South Wales Police alone is receiving five cases a fortnight so far in 2018.
The vast majority of known activity comes from organised gangs based abroad, but individuals could also seek to profit by demanding thousands of pounds from each victim.
Girls and boys as young as 14 have been preyed on and the oldest known British victim was 82, but the most common age group is between 21 and 30.
Detective Chief Inspector Rob Cronick, of the force’s major crime team, said: “Unfortunately we are continuing to see an escalation in this type of crime, which is carried out by criminal gangs across online and social media platforms – whether that’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat or Skype, or dating apps including Tinder, Bumble, and Plenty of Fish.
“Crimes such as these usually follow weeks of grooming via social media by criminal gangs who will prey on any vulnerability they can find… these networks are run on a huge scale using sophisticated means, all under the guise of someone looking for romance online.
“However, their sole intention is to make as much money as they can – with no thought towards the appalling emotional damage inflicted on their victims.”
The NCA said security services across Europe are also reporting a rise in the crime.
“Sextortion has been identified as an emerging threat in recent years and thousands of people in the UK are likely to be falling victim every year,” said Roy Sinclair, from the agency’s anti-kidnap and extortion unit. “We believe that it is likely there has been significant under-reporting because very often victims feel embarrassed or ashamed, but criminals rely on that reaction in order to succeed.
“The NCA and police forces are working together to build a more accurate picture of the true scale.”
Police are urging people to take precautions online by not accepting friend requests from strangers and reviewing their privacy settings online.
Anyone targeted is urged to call police on 101, to not pay ransoms or communicate further, and to preserve all correspondence.
“We will help you,” DCI Cronick added. “If you have paid, please still report the matter to police and we will provide assistance and support while we investigate the circumstances. Our priority is to keep people safe. There is no hiding place for these criminals – anywhere. UK police forces work closely with the National Crime Agency (NCA) and worldwide law enforcement to hunt them down.”