Thousands of young men each year in the UK are falling victim to a cruel scam, one that is also claiming lives.Sextortion is a cyber-entrapment crime which involves the threat of sharing images or footage – often ‘nudes’ – to extort money from people.
The scammers use fake identities online to befriend vulnerable, often young, males, and trick them into performing sexual acts in front of their webcam, record the content and then use it as blackmail.
During lockdown, as many people looked for relationships and connections online, reports of sextortion scams soared.Luke (not his real name), 20, was befriended by a woman on Instagram. She claimed she was 21 and persuaded him to start a web chat with her.
In the private chat, a video of a woman stripping was played. At the time, Luke thought this was the woman he was speaking to, but he now understands this was a pre-recorded video of someone else, most likely sourced from a porn website.
Not long after their online encounter ended, Luke received a message that triggered severe anxiety and made him lose sleep for days.
“They sent me a video of a recording of me masturbating and threatened to send it to friends and family on Instagram and Facebook,” Luke told ITV News.
The scammers demanded that Luke pay them €400 (£345) so they did not send the footage to all of his contacts. In a state of panic, he paid, but then they demanded more.
“They asked me to pay €200 every second day of the month for a year,” Luke said.He knew that they would never stop asking for more money, so after a week he sought help from the police and shut down his social media accounts.Luke’s story is not a one-off.In figures obtained from the National Crime Agency (NCA):
- Reports of these crimes have increased by 88% from 2018 (1,525 reports) to 2020 (2,881 cases)
- Between January and February this year, there have already been 1,661 sextortion cases.
- The majority of the victims are male and the most targeted age group is 20-35 (62.29%), although the age ranges from 18 all the way up to 83 years old.
The volume of these dangerous scams is alarming because of the profound mental impact they can have on their victims.
David Jones, head of the National Crime Agency’s Anti-Kidnap and Extortion Unit, told ITV News that in the last five years the agency has learned of at least six young men who have taken their own life as a result of sextortion scams, but fears that number could be a lot higher.
Mr Jones believes that more members of the public are reporting these scams to the authorities because of their confidence in UK police forces, but also attributes the rise to the pandemic.
“With lockdowns and people were being confined to home, this really is an outlet for them to create friendships and relationships and this is how organised crime prey on these victims, sadly,” Mr Jones said.The NCA says that these scams are carried out by organised crime gangs operating mainly out of the Philippines, Morocco and the Ivory Coast, which makes it difficult to track down the perpetrators, although the NCA is working with international law enforcement partners.
Wayne May runs a support website called ‘Scam Survivors’ for victims of cyber crimes like sextortion. Over the last 12 months, the site has seen a 13% increase in reports, with Wayne believing the real number of sextortion incidents is much higher, because of the embarrassment that many attach to it.
“What we are seeing is just the tip of the iceberg. I imagine for every one person that comes forward, there are maybe 10 or a hundred people who haven’t come forward,” Wayne said.He adds that case numbers are also high because of the scams can be carried out quickly.
“We’ve seen cases where the scammer has gone through up to 40 people in a single day. It’s not like a romance scam where they may groom the person for weeks or months before.
“What to do if you’ve been a victim of a sextortion scamIf someone has been threatened with images or footage of themselves being distributed, the advice from the NCA’s David Jones is: “Don’t panic, don’t pay, seek support and come to the police.
“Scam Survivors suggest blocking the scammer accounts and temporarily deactivating your own social media profile.
“If you paid them or not, it could be a few weeks, could even be a few months, sit that out and then come back, create a new profile. Don’t use the same images as you did before.”
Wayne May from Scam Survivors believes that if you don’t give the scammer a chance to contact you, “99.9% of the time they simply move on without ever posting anything”.