Thousands of British children have been targeted by internet blackmailers, with many forced to use webcams to film themselves performing sex acts or self-mutilation because they fear having their naked pictures sent to their families, child protection experts warn today.
The blackmailing of children has emerged as a fast-growing new method employed by sadistic abusers who operate behind fake profiles on social networks to take advantage of youthful sexual experimentation and snare their victims, driving some to self-harm and even suicide.
A single police operation discovered that one small ring of paedophiles overseas had pressured more than 300 children, including 96 in Britain, into performing live sex acts online. Some of the youngsters attempted suicide when they were threatened with having their behaviour made public, according to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop). Police analysis of computers reveals that, before befriending a child they intend to groom for online abuse, perpetrators often research the victim’s location, school and other details, so as to present a convincing picture of themselves as a local young adolescent. Children as young as eight are being targeted, according to Ceop.
Such grooming often starts on open chat forums before moving to private areas where the talk swiftly becomes more explicit. The threats usually start after children have been tricked into posting compromising pictures of themselves that they fear could be distributed more widely. In one online conversation retrieved by the authorities, an abuser tricked his victim and then became increasingly aggressive, saying he did not care if the boy killed himself. “I totally own you,” he said.
The practice appears to be a new, more menacing development in the world of cyber-bullying. Children have been forced to film themselves on webcams as they write degrading statements on their bodies or cut themselves, says Ceop. One abuser collected images of his blackmailed victims in a folder named “slaves”.
A British teenager is one of seven young people who have killed themselves over blackmail. Daniel Perry, 17, of Dunfermline, Fife, leapt from the Forth Road Bridge in July. He had been having online chats with a person he believed to be an American girl of his own age, but was then told his conversations would be played to his family and friends unless he paid money into a bank account. Police are still investigating Daniel’s death.
Experts said that, while they had seen a few cases of extortion, most blackmailers were motivated by sexual desire and sadism. “There is a desire for power and control, and getting a kick out of causing as much pain as possible,” said Dr Elly Farmer, a clinical psychologist.
Ceop has carried out 12 operations over the past two years in which the blackmailing of children into performing sex acts was a clear motive, with 424 victims worldwide and 184 in Britain. Five of those operations – against groups and individuals – were in the UK. Ceop said the number of victims identified represented a small fraction of the number targeted.
The global nature of the problem was highlighted by “Operation K”, launched this year after a complaint by one victim to police in Britain. It revealed evidence of a group of friends in an unspecified country acting together to ensnare young children. They operated dozens of profiles and email addresses on five websites. Most of the British children targeted were boys aged 11 to 15. Britons were disproportionately targeted because they spoke English, and in the apparent belief that liberal values in this country were likely to make them more susceptible to online grooming, Ceop said. Many of the victims were forced to conduct graphic sex acts. “The coverage was immense,” said Ceop’s operations manager Stephanie McCourt. “It was very easy for children to get caught up in that process.”
A group of men, aged 20 to 44, are due to go on trial within the next month in an unspecified non-European country that authorities declined to name for legal reasons.
Ceop said a third of its operations had seen abusers operate on the so-called “Darknet” – an encrypted sub-layer of the world wide web that is supposed to ensure anonymity – but officials said people were arrested in every “sting”. They declined to say how suspects were identified.
“Young people must remember that the online world is the real world. Pictures can be distributed to thousands of people in seconds and can never be fully deleted,” said John Cameron, the head of the NSPCC helpline. “We need to educate young people but also reassure them that no matter what threats people make to them over the internet, they can be stopped and the crime they are committing is very serious and can result in a lengthy jail sentence.”
Last year, two brothers in Kuwait were jailed for five years after targeting 110 children around the world using similar tactics, with the majority from Britain. Mohammed Khalaf Al Ali Alhamadi, 35, and 27-year-old Yousef Al Ali Alhamadi were found to have blackmailed children from a dozen countries. They often pretended to be someone the victim already knew on social networks, then tricked them into handing over online passwords. Andy Baker, the deputy chief executive of Ceop, said: “These offenders are cowards. They hide behind a screen and, in many cases, make hollow threats which they know they will never act on because sharing these images will only bring the police closer to them.”
Contact the NSPCC’s dedicated helpline on 0800 328 0904
‘Blackmail drove me to self-harm’
“I was about 12 and this person started talking to me on the internet and said he was around my age, and then the conversation sort of developed into other things.
“He’d steer the conversation in a way where it was turning a bit dirty, then he’d start asking for other types of pictures as well. If you try and say ‘oh I don’t want to talk about that’ or ‘whatever’, he’d threaten or blackmail me, saying that he’d send my dad all the chat logs if I didn’t do what he said. I just thought you wouldn’t blackmail someone you’re supposed to be in love with so I just told him to shut up and sent him a couple more photos but he started to do that every week.
“My teacher said I’d been acting depressed and they sorted me out with counselling. I’d started to self-harm as well because everything just came together at the same time, and I was really upset and just needed a release.
“Luckily I’m a fairly strong person and I can get over things – I’ve learned to just push them away. But what if it was someone who wasn’t, who was a weaker-minded person than me, what would have happened? They might have committed suicide or something, and it wouldn’t have even been their fault – it would be because people weren’t there for them.”
‘He thought he let everyone down’
Daniel Perry, 17, a trainee mechanic, thought he was having conversations with a girl about his own age over the internet. Then in July he received a message saying that unless he paid up, explicit material from the conversations would be posted to his family.
An hour later Daniel, who was from Dunfermline, killed himself by jumping off the Forth Road Bridge.
“Knowing him as I do, he has felt embarrassed, horrified and has thought he’s let everybody down,” his mother told her local newspaper.
“He wasn’t doing anything wrong, just what anyone his age might do. This scam is all about exploiting young people.”
Blackmail chat: Extracts from intercepted conversations
I recorded everything. 8 minutes. Your mine
I am sending it to your friends
Please I'm begging you
What will you do for your social life? Are you willing to do anything?
Please delete it.
I'll kill myself
I don’t care if u gonna killur self or whatever u gonna do
I totally own you
Staying safe: Advice for children
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) gives the following tips for young people to stay safe online.
1. Don’t feel pressured to get naked on webcam. Abusers don’t always share images, even if they have threatened to. The more information they share, the more likely they are to be arrested.
2. If you are threatened online, tell a trusted adult at the earliest possible opportunity. There are alternatives to parents, including the NSPCC and Ceop.
3. It’s never too late to get help. Even if an abuser does share an image, that is better than being forced to do more sexual acts.
4. It’s not your fault – the abuser is the only person to blame. You won’t get in trouble. The abuser has broken the law by encouraging a young person to strip naked and is liable for prosecution.
CEOP also draws attention to some of the lies abusers use. For example: “The police will never find me. I’ve hidden myself on the internet.” In fact, this is never true: all abusers leave a “digital footprint” online. Another common lie is: “I’m definitely going to share this image if you don’t go on webcam for me.” In fact, abusers don’t always share images, even when they’ve threatened to. It’s not in their best interests: the more information they share, the easier it is for police to track them down.
For more information see: www.ceop.police.uk