Teenagers are being warned to “never” send intimate pictures to strangers over the internet following reports of blackmailing incidents in the Bay of Plenty.
The warning comes as Netsafe chief online safety officer Sean Lyons says he has heard of an “increasing number” of young people getting caught up in online blackmailing which could have “serious emotional impacts”.
Meanwhile, Bay of Plenty-based service Tautoko Mai Sexual Harm Support says the “problematic behaviour” is coming from those threatening to share images non-consensually rather than the young people sending the photos.
Sergeant Steve Hindmarsh of Katikati police said between March 31 and April 5, there had been two reports of teenage males being blackmailed into paying money after sending “inappropriate pictures” to strangers on social media.
The blackmailers, often from overseas, “threaten to send the images to all of the victim’s contacts unless they pay money into an account”, he said.
“Often the person who people think they have struck up a relationship with is not who they say they are and is using a fake profile,” Hindmarsh said.
Hindmarsh said upon receiving payment, blackmailers would often ask for more money “until the victim realises that the demands will never stop”.
Hindmarsh told the Bay of Plenty Times the situation was “not a one-off”, and he urged young people to “never send pictures of this nature to someone you have met on the internet”.
“We get reports periodically like this. It’s just something young people have got to be aware of,” he said.
“It’s a pretty vicious cycle - it wouldn’t be a comfortable position to be in knowing that the blackmailer may expose you to friends and family.”
Asked how the teenagers involved were impacted, Hindmarsh said: “They are always very embarrassed”.
“It’s got to have a psychological effect on someone that has been caught in that trap. They will get quite emotional about it,” he said.
Asked if either of the teenagers paid money, he said: “I think in one case they did.”
Hindmarsh said when these incidents occurred, he took a report of the incident and advised victims “not to pay any money”.
Netsafe chief online safety officer Sean Lyons said anecdotally, there had been an “increasing number” of young people caught up in this situation.
Lyons said individuals often would initially meet through online dating apps and then continue to interact on another social media platform as their relationship developed.
The “dating” period could go on for weeks, where “people believe they are engaged in the beginning of what could be a relationship”, he said.
At this point, the blackmailer had often familiarised themselves with the victim’s life, including their friends, family and place of work.
Lyons said this was when the victim was “convinced” to send intimate pictures or engage in live webcamming.
Being threatened could have “serious emotional impacts” on the victim, he said.
“It can be a real double blow.”
Lyons said not only was it an attempt to extort money, but it could also be a “loss of a relationship and trust in people” for the victim.
And blackmailers would often demand hundreds or thousands of dollars.
Lyon’s message to those who find themselves in this situation was to “talk to the people you care about”.
It was the “only way to head off the actions of the threats they are holding over you”, he said.
“Embarrassment is hugely pervasive. Only by us talking about it more do we destigmatise it.”
These discussions were important, as they helped “remove the power” of the blackmailers, he said.
While it could feel “cringe-worthy”, Lyons said parents should discuss dating and internet safety with their children to “get a sense of how much your young person knows and whether or not they have strategies in place to deal with it”.
Client services manager at Bay of Plenty-based Tautoko Mai Sexual Harm Support, Julie Sach, said staff were hearing about the non-consensual sharing of nude images online “more and more”.
While they had not yet worked with victims of blackmailing, she said “we are understanding it is on the rise”.
“From our perspective, it falls into a category of sexual harm. All our services available would be available to somebody who had been victimised in that way.”
Sach urged people to keep in mind the “problematic behaviour” was coming from the individual threatening to share the images rather than the person who sent the pictures initially.
Ōtūmoetai College principal Russell Gordon said it was the first he had heard of this “abhorrent” behaviour, which would have left these young people in a “vulnerable position”.
“My heart breaks for those kids - their trust has been abused. It’s a lot to come back from.”
Gordon said, in his view, there needed to be a push to make cyber safety education a priority.
It needed to be delivered in a “relatable” way by other young people who had “lived experience” around the issue, he said.
Where to get help
Resources can be found on Netsafe’s Online Safety Parent Toolkit or through the helpline 0508 NETSAFE. There is also specific information about webcam blackmail on their website.
Netsafe’s advice if you are being blackmailed:
- Do not respond or pay the ransom
- If you have connected to the blackmailers on social media, unfriend them, block them and deactivate your account
- Block any messages sent over video or other chat apps
- Report the accounts being used to the platform that it’s on (e.g. report to Facebook)
- Report at your local police station or to Netsafe
- If the content is posted online, report it immediately to the platform that it’s on and to Netsafe
To report this behaviour, email firstname.lastname@example.org or complete a report form on their website.