Teachers urged to talk to children about ‘callous’ sextortion as cases double

Scammers are targetting teenage boys on social media and threatening to share explicit images unless they pay

Holly Bancroft
Social Affairs Correspondent
Monday 29 April 2024 14:49 BST
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Teachers have been urged to warn children about the risk of being targeted by “callous” organised criminals through “sextortionscams after reported cases doubled.

Criminals threaten to release nude or semi-nude photos of someone – either real or fake – unless the victim pays them.

The number of global cases reported to the US National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children more than doubled from 10,731 in 2022 to 26,718 in 2023 with a large proportion of victims being boys aged between 14 and 18.

Nine out of 10 UK cases dealt with by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) in 2023 concerned male victims, the National Crime Agency (NCA) said.

The NCA’s child exploitation and online protection (CEOP) education team on Monday issued an alert to teachers warning them about the rise in cases.

They said that these “sextortion” scams are often perpetrated by organised crime groups based overseas, mostly in West African countries, although some operate in South East Asia.

Criminals see these threats as a way of making money quickly, and in some cases have gone from initial contact to blackmailing their victim in under an hour, experts at the NCA said.

The scams usually start when the child is contacted by an online account that they don’t know, but which appears to be another child or young person. In some cases, the scammer could have hacked the social media account of a child that they are friends with.

The chat then quickly descends into sexually explicit communication and may include the offender sharing an indecent image first, the NCA said.

Teenage boys are being targetted online by scammers
Teenage boys are being targetted online by scammers (Getty Images)

The child or teenager who has been targeted is either manipulated or pressured into taking a nude picture to send in return, or they are told they have been hacked and the scammer has access to their images and contacts.

They then demand money and threaten the child.

The NCA have now issued guidance to teachers about spotting the signs of abuse and also guidance for parents on how to talk to children about sextortion. The NCA recommend that families don’t pay the blackmailer, stop contact with them and then block them.

They also suggest not deleting anything that could be used as evidence, and reporting the incident to the police.

James Babbage, the NCA’s director general for threats, said: “Sextortion causes immeasurable stress and anguish, and we know there are adults and young people who have devastatingly taken their own lives as a result.

“A lot of victims feel responsible but we need them to know this is absolutely not the case; you are not to blame and help and support is available.”

Susie Hargreaves, chief executive of the IWF, said: “Sextortion has become a major threat online in the last few years.

“This alert to schools is an absolutely crucial intervention in stemming this epidemic which has already ruined so many young lives.

“These criminals are cold-blooded, and do not even care when the shame and fear they inflict drives some children to take their own lives.

“We want children to know, however, they are not alone, no matter how lonely it feels, that there is a remedy, and a way to take control and fight back.

“The Report Remove tool we run with Childline is revolutionary and allows you to stop sexual imagery being shared or from going viral online.

“Please, if you are being targeted this way, reach out. It is not a hopeless situation, and we are here to help you.”

Security minister Tom Tugendhat said sextortion “destroys lives”. “It is often driven by highly sophisticated organised crime groups who exploit vulnerable people for profit,” he said.

“It’s vital that technology companies take responsibility for the safety of their users by implementing stronger safeguards on their platforms.

“I would urge parents to talk to their children about their use of social media. Even sites that many assume to be safe may pose a risk.”

Richard Collard, associate head of child safety online policy at the NSPCC, said: “Children must be supported to spot signs of abuse, but the burden should not be on them to protect themselves from harm online.

“Tech companies must step up and actively tackle the threat of sexual extortion on their platforms by putting safeguards in place and identifying dangerous behaviour.”

Guidance to teachers can be found at thinkuknow.co.uk/professionals/guidance/fmse-alert/

To get support or report an incident visit www.ceop.police.uk

Help to get images removed if they have been posted online can be found at www.childline.org.uk/info-advice/bullying-abuse-safety/online-mobile-safety/report-remove/ or takeitdown.ncmec.org/

If you are experiencing feelings of distress, or are struggling to cope, you can speak to the Samaritans, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call or text 988, or visit 988lifeline.org to access online chat from the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. This is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.

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