It’s one of the most disturbing things you’ll hear about on the internet - and it might be your children who are at risk.
CEOP, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre, has today warned of what it describes as a “worrying trend” in children self-harming or taking their own lives, after falling victim to online blackmailers.
What’s happening is this:
Abusers create fake identities online, usually pretending to be adolescents of the opposite sex, and target their young victims on social networks.
At this point, the conversation may appear innocent enough - but the abuser will pressure their victim to use another service, where they can have a more private conversation.
This conversation rapidly becomes sexual, and young victims are talked into sharing images of themselves or performing sex acts on their webcam - in the belief that it could lead to a relationship.
In other cases, a predator might be able to take remote control of their victim’s webcam or private email conversations by installing malware.
Whatever the route, the victim is then blackmailed - and told that unless they submit to their abuser’s demands, the compromising naked images and video will be shared with their friends online, posted on Facebook, sent to their parents, and so forth…
Teenagers are particularly at risk because they may well be exploring their sexuality for the first time, or given more freedom and privacy about what they are doing on the internet by their parents.
Just last month I reported on the tragic case of Daniel Perry, a 17-year-old from Dunfermline, Fife, who killed himself after being tricked into having a Skype conversation with an extortionist posing as an American girl.
But it’s not just teens who are at risk.
CEOP’s Deputy chief executive Andy Baker told the BBC that children as young as eight years old have been forced into performing “slave-like acts” for online blackmailers.
Abuse can even extend to self-harming according to CEOP.
children are not only made to exchange sexual images/videos of themselves, but also forced by offenders to perform other acts live on webcam including writing degrading statements on their body and cutting themselves.
Stephanie McCourt, CEOP’s operations manager, was reported by the BBC as saying that British children are particularly at risk because they speak English, and are considered a soft target.
“First of all it’s the English language. They are able to threaten the children if they can communicate to them. English is a really popular universal language.
“Second of all, the offenders have actually said that because they perceive the UK as a very free and open and liberal society, they think that they will have more success in targeting UK children.”
Certainly it’s easy to imagine that there are a lot fewer blackmailers around the world who can speak, say, Italian than English - meaning Massimo in Milan is at less risk of this kind of attack than Matthew in Manchester.
Here are some tips to help you or your children avoid becoming the next people blackmailed in this fashion:
- Always be wary of strangers befriending you on social networks. If they’re suddenly showing a romantic interest in you, ask yourself if it’s likely that they would have fallen for you out of the billions of other internet users.
- Never put yourself into a compromising position on your webcam and keep your clothes on. You cannot be sure that the person at the other end isn’t recording everything that is taking place. Additionally, don’t give away too much personal information to someone you don’t really know.
- If anyone does ever attempt to extort money from you online, don’t pay them. Contact the police instead. You may be embarrassed about the mess you have got yourself into, but the authorities are the right ones to investigate and (hopefully) bring the culprit to justice. In many cases, the blackmailer may not follow through with their threats to share the images.
- If you’re worried that hackers might be able to see you through your webcam, take care over the links you click on and the software you install on your computer, keep your security patches and anti-virus software up-to-date and consider sticking a band-aid over the webcam when you don’t want to use it.
- Protect your family by educating them about online threats, and the risks of internet blackmail. Consider encouraging the use of the computer in a shared, family room rather than their bedroom. In that way, inappropriate behaviour can be more easily monitored and it is less likely that youngsters will be drawn into inappropriate communications. Of course, it is very difficult to balance with this with the understandable desire as your children get older to give them more freedom.
If you are an adult worried about a child, or if you think you have been the victim of online blackmail involving the sharing of indecent images, you can get help and support by contacting the NSPCC’s dedicated 24/7 helpline on 0800 328 0904. If you are in immediate danger call the police on 999.
Learn more and get help via the CEOP website.