Sextortion/webcam blackmail is a booming business for organised crime groups from the Philippines, Ivory Coast and Morocco, and young men across the UK are the most sought-after victims.
What is sextortion?
In sextortion schemes, the victims are usually contacted via social media, dating sites and even LinkedIn, after criminals used those same sources to gauge how much money they could get out of them and how likely they are to pay to avoid embarrassment.
They are contacted by women who are either working with the criminals of their own free will (for a fee) or have been coerced into these actions through threats.
The victims are lured into video chatting with the women via Skype, and into performing sexual acts in front of their webcam. Unfortunately, the video chats are recorded by the criminals, and then used to blackmail the victims – the victims are told that the video will be sent to their loved ones if they don’t pay up.
Of course, women can also be victims of sextortion, usually by being blackmailed or by being coerced into carrying out sexual acts.
The scope of this criminal practice
According to the UK National Crime Agency, there were “864 cases of financially motivated webcam blackmail so far in 2016, more than double the figure from the whole of the previous year (385).” And that’s a conservative number, as many sextortion victims are unlikely to report the crime for fear of their online antics being exposed to family, friends and employers.
“Cases of webcam blackmail – or sextortion – are going up dramatically. As recently as 2012 we were only getting a handful of reports a year, now we’re getting hundreds, and our law enforcement partners across Europe are reporting a similar picture,” Roy Sinclair, from the NCA’s Anti-Kidnap and Extortion Unit, noted.
According to NCA’s statistics, most of the victims are men aged between 11 and 30. And, unfortunately, there have already been four instances when the victims – mostly youngsters – felt they had not other option except suicide to escape the shame.
“Younger men do not always have the emotional strength to cope with blackmail. Therefore, a key purpose of our campaigning is to give more victims the confidence to confide in police about any situations or threats they’ve encountered,” Detective Chief Inspector Paul Gelman of the Hampshire Constabulary told Capital FM, which also provided a first-person account of the sextortion experience by a teenager from Hampshire.
The teen was lonely and took to dating sites to meet people, and was contacted by a woman who first chatted with him, then asked him for his Facebook profile and picture, then invited him onto Skype to talk “in person.” It took some weeks for all this to happen, and by the time they got on Skype, “it seemed normal when this woman started talking intimately.” Suspecting nothing, he was persuaded into performing sexual acts, and that was it.
Tips on avoiding sextortion
In the first place, users are advised to be careful about whom they befriend online and about whom they have sex with online.
But for those who have already fallen for the scheme, the advice is to not panic and not pay, contact the police, report the crime, and try to gather evidence.
This document by the Hampshire Constabulary has more detailed advice, as well as instructions on how to remove nude or sexually explicit images or videos that are been shared without their consent online (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.)
Victims are often doubtful that the police could help them, but the fact is that if they pay once they will be forced to pay again, and even if they pay, there is no guarantee that the videos and photos won’t ultimately be posted by the criminals.
What is law enforcement doing about all this?
Aside from mounting awareness campaigns, police in the UK and around the world is working on solving these crimes.
According to the BBC, last year over 40 arrests were made in the Philippines in relation to sextortion, and there is one ongoing international prosecution connected to one of the suicides reported this year.
Sextortion/webcam blackmail is a crime that has yet to gain widespread awareness. A variant of the scheme has been recently very realistically depicted in an episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror series.