He meets her online, she wants a video chat and things get steamy — next thing, she is demanding money to stop her posting the video. Katie Glass on the devastating rise of "sextortion"
It starts innocently enough: boy meets girl online. She has honey-brown hair and a sweet smile. Her name is Audrey. She looks just a little older than Tom, who is just 16. In her profile picture she is casually dressed, wearing sunglasses, loose shorts and a T-shirt, but he can see how pretty she is, standing in a field, flicking her long hair over her shoulder in the sun.
At first, they connect with idle chat, then, over a couple of hours, it grows into more than that. Now she is teasing him. "We'll do it together," Audrey types into Skype messenger, telling Tom to go into the bathroom and turn his camera on. "You see me?" she writes, as footage of her taking off her clothes pops up. "Give me a kiss at the cam." She wants to see Tom's face, she wants to see his body, she wants to see him touching himself. Tom does as she asks.
The next time Audrey messages him it is with a list of Tom's Facebook contacts — his family, his schoolfriends — and a link to YouTube, where she says she will publish the video unless he pays her £5,000 ($9200).
It could be the plot of an episode of Black Mirror, but this is real-life "sextortion", cyber-enabled blackmail over sexually explicit videos, and it's one of thousands of cases recorded by the National Crime Agency (NCA) in recent years. Most victims are young men aged 16 to 35, a group that has proved to be particularly vulnerable to manipulation and sexual shame.
Tom, not his real name, is unwilling to meet to discuss his experience, but agrees that the NCA can share the exchanges between him and his blackmailer, later revealed to be a scammer based in Ivory Coast. The onslaught of aggressive messages sent to the 16-year-old is disturbing. "Audrey" lists the places she will publish his video — Daily Motion, YouTube, Twitter — and names the people in his town who will see it. She chooses her words carefully to humiliate him, repeating how "dirty" he is, talking about "the shame". She tells him "don't try to flee", that she will ruin him "like all those people who tried to play hardball with me".
Harder still is seeing how he begs. "Don't send it to anybody … I'm just a 16-year-old …it's stupid of me to do this … Just please don't ruin my life … I'm a broke student … Just leave me alone." He explains that he doesn't have a job that his family is "really poor and we can't make that much money that quickly … I can make it but it's just gonna take time."
The NCA first spotted this vicious form of blackmail about six years ago. One of the first cases was in 2013, when 17-year-old Daniel Perry from Dunfermline in Scotland committed suicide after being blackmailed by a gang in the Philippines over intimate pictures he'd sent during an online sex chat. At first there were just a few cases. Last year there were 1,500. The NCA is aware of five teenage boys who have taken their own lives after being blackmailed in this way.
Sextortion victims come from all walks of life. The NCA has dealt with students, police officers, firemen, military personnel, heads of local authorities, sports personalities, teachers and celebrities. Sometimes individual blackmailers are to blame, but more often the scams are operated by organised criminal gangs. Indeed, the footage of women stripping that is used to lure victims often comes from women who have previously been scammed. "It's very slick, very professional," says Matt Richards from the NCA's Anti-Kidnap and Extortion Unit. "They have a script."
This is how the scenario unfolds: a "girl" on social media, or a dating app, invites a boy to chat. She moves the conversation to an instant-messaging service such as WhatsApp, Kik or Skype, where she initiates explicit banter and persuades him to perform a sexual act either during a video chat or by making a video of himself and sending it. As soon as the video is obtained, the blackmail begins. Often, demands are for relatively small amounts, sometimes from as little as £30 ($55) to £1,600 ($2950). But the frequency and international scale of the extortion has turned it into a multimillion-pound global industry, with most perpetrators traced back to three countries, Ivory Coast, the Philippines and, to a lesser extent, Morocco.
Researching this story, I've been shocked by the number of men who have told me that they've been victims of some kind of sextortion. The modus operandi did not always involve videos. Sometimes they received threatening emails blackmailing them, claiming to have recorded them via the webcam on their computer while they watched porn. Some men admitted they had paid to make the problem go away, but few had shared their experiences with anyone, least of all the police.
"I suspect we just see the tip of the iceberg," Richards says. "We see just a snapshot of what's happening in the UK because people are still not prepared to report these offences."
While women have started to find the language to share their experiences of sexual abuse, many men still struggle to do the same. There is a pervasive, misleading and damaging idea that men don't suffer from sexual shame. The outdated sexist notions that men don't share their feelings and should be able to look after themselves only serve to keep male victims of sextortion scams silent.
One young victim, who agreed to meet me only if I did not identify him, was Michael. His blackmailer was a friend of a friend, which is why he accepted her friend request on Facebook. He came home one night after a few drinks and they started chatting, "the kind of basic chat you'd have with anyone you meet online", he says. It quickly became flirtatious, then more intimate. "It was just a bit of stupid fun. That's what it was meant to be," he says.
Michael is tall, muscular and good-looking, with floppy, dark-brown hair. He wears a fashionable, tight-fitting sweater with the sleeves rolled up to show trendy tattoos. He seems confident as we sit together in a bar. He jokes that he is "pretty unemotional", but shifts in his seat and skirts the most intimate details of that night, claiming he was too drunk to remember how one thing led to another before she suggested they have a video chat on WhatsApp. She started stripping off, touching herself, encouraging him to do the same. She wanted to see his face. "That was key," he thinks in retrospect.
The moment she had an intimate video of Michael, everything changed. Suddenly he wasn't watching a girl stripping but a video that showed her going through his Facebook page, scrolling through his family members' profiles. She told him if he didn't send her $1,000 immediately, she'd send the video to them all. "I just panicked," Michael says. " 'What the f*** has just happened?' I didn't know what was going on."
Michael lived in a small town in Scotland, where word travels fast. He had "a high-powered job. A lot of staff. I was worried what my family and friends would say. I didn't think logically, I just thought, 'I don't want people to see this.' My only concern was to stop it, to keep it all from coming out. You feel more exposed online," he says. "There are people who aren't your real friends but social media friends, work colleagues, people I hadn't spoken to in years … I didn't know where they would put the video."
He agreed to pay £200 ($370), but daily demands for money followed. When he tried to stop paying, the threats escalated. The messages were relentless. He shows me a screen-grab on his phone of how they came, one after the other. Sometimes there were more than 100 messages a day telling him she could ruin his life. "I'll ruin you, I'll destroy you" and "I'll destroy your career".
She ransacked the internet for personal information, finding his old schoolfriends, where he worked and who owned the company, threatening to send the video to them. When he tried turning off his phone for 48 hours, they sent the video to his little sister, his cousin, his aunt, his friends. They found his dad and contacted him on WhatsApp, demanding money or they would "spread the video all over the internet".
As Michael's blackmail went on, he tried to deal with it on his own. "I didn't want to talk to anyone about it," he says. "It's not that I didn't have a close network of friends and people I could trust, but boys don't talk about embarrassing things. Men aren't supposed to be ashamed of anything."
Michael was blackmailed over his video for almost two years. In that period, he sent his blackmailer £46,503 ($86,000). But more profound than the money was the emotional impact on him. "I was thinking, 'I can't keep going on any more like this,' " he says.
"Historically, there wasn't the recognition as to what this kind of offence was or the impact it could have on victims," says Richards at the NCA. For some, the sense of shame is too great to bear, as was the case with 19-year-old Adam Wood.
The first thing I ask Roy Wood is whether I can use his son's real name. He says yes. He feels it is important. "The reason this happens to these young men is because of the shame. But why should I be ashamed to say this happened to my son? He was a victim. There's nothing to be ashamed of. This is happening to a lot of people, and the more people talk about it, the more chance we've got of stopping it."
At 19, Adam was "a typical lad". He'd started a DJing business, enjoyed playing games online and had a wide circle of friends. He was taking A-levels in maths, chemistry, biology and PE, and wanted to be a paramedic. He was 6ft 2in — big, like his dad — and a "gentle giant". Adam may have looked like a grown-up, but Roy was conscious he was "on the cusp between adolescence and adulthood". He worried Adam "was always trying to please people. He was extremely easily led." Sometimes, Roy says, Adam seemed confident, "yet other situations he couldn't deal with". He recalls how anxious his son had been about starting college, although Roy felt they'd got through the worst of it. "Now he was 19, we were on the home straight," he says. "But teenagers are secretive, teenagers choose not to tell their parents stuff … "
We are sitting in the front room of their family home. They'd turned the third floor into a flat for Adam, with his own mini kitchen and bathroom. "I was giving him more space," says Roy, "then the whole thing backfired on me, catastrophically."
That summer, Adam had split up with the girlfriend he'd been with for more than a year. "It had a big impact on him," Roy says. Adam began smoking weed and arguing with his parents. He started isolating himself. A friend suggested he join a dating website. "At the time he was lonely," says Roy. "He met someone and started what seemed like a normal relationship."
Her name was "Hope Joy".
Roy disappears several times to the kitchen during our conversation, offering to make tea, coming back red-faced. Adam's mother chose not to be interviewed: she cannot speak about what took place. Roy's words are slow and heavy as he describes how the family began to notice Adam's behaviour changing, how he would lie in bed all day and stay up all night playing online games. They became so concerned they contacted their local adult mental health service. Someone came to see Adam and reported to Roy that he was "fine, nothing to worry about". "So we relaxed," Roy says. One night, he and his wife went for a drink. As Adam went to bed around midnight, he told his little sister he was fine.
Roy asks me to follow him to the kitchen. As the kettle boils, he points out of the window. "Next morning, I got up and Adam was missing," he says. Adam was found dead in the garden.
The details the police could provide about what had happened to Adam were scant. They told me: "Examination of the mobile telephone download revealed a Kik chat, which commences on 21/09/17 at 1139 hours and concludes 22/09/17 at 0736. In summary, Adam engages in flirtatious chat with a 'Hope Joy', who requests a naked photograph from him. Adam sends this picture and the tone of the conversation changes to demand of monies or the photo will be distributed to Adam's Facebook friends and family."
Hope demanded £300 ($555). Adam begged. He only had £50 ($92), and agreed to send it by Western Union. During the conversation, Adam writes, "I don't know what you expect me to do. I have no money, so I'll have no life as well, may as well just kill myself."
"It was literally straightforward blackmail," Roy says. "£300." He breathes deeply, trying to stop the tears coming again. "That's the bit that upsets me. I'd have given him the money."
Adam was extorted by a gang in the Philippines. The investigation into his case is continuing. The international nature of sextortion cases makes justice complicated and convictions rare. Still, they have happened. Last year, a two-year investigation involving the NCA and police from Romania, Northern Ireland and Europol brought Romanian scammer Iulian Enache to court for a sextortion scam he carried out on 17-year-old Ronan Hughes.
Hughes, from Northern Ireland, took his own life in 2015 after being blackmailed for £3,000 ($5,500) over intimate images of himself. "I will destroy your life," said one message. "I'm only 17, please, I'm begging you, don't," Ronan pleaded. Enache replied: "That's not my problem… Do you want to tell your mother or will I?" Enache sent images of a naked Ronan to his schoolfriends, demanding money, telling them "Ronan Hughes will commit suicide because of this … and it will be your responsibility", but Hughes was already dead. Enache was sentenced to four years in jail.
As sextortion becomes more widespread, clearly more than just laws are required to tackle it. In part, it requires an attitude change. "Young people need to trust their parents," says Roy Wood. "Adam could have come to me with anything and I'd have helped him deal with it. Kids don't seem to realise that their parents have actually been kids. I've made mistakes." He worries that boys "deal with things in a different way". "It's hard for boys to talk about feelings. There is a huge amount of pressure to seem like they're handling things."
Roy thinks young people are "more ashamed by their bodies. Whereas when you get older, you just take the hit and deal with it." He worries that reality TV shows foster an intimidating ideal of physical perfection. "The men that are on there, to me, they're not real men, they're all so plastic and false. It's a bit scary if people watch that and aspire to be like them."
He believes that young people can be too trusting on social media platforms, revealing too much about themselves and making themselves vulnerable to "interference". "Because they can post directly to your Facebook wall, they can see your friends, they can target your friends or send pictures of you to your friends."
Since he was blackmailed, Michael has taken himself off all social media. "I wouldn't say social media is a bad thing — the ability to connect with people all over the world is great, but there needs to be stricter guidelines about how it's used. I wasn't a young kid when this happened to me. The best advice I'd give to anyone if it happened to them is — so what? Tell your parents, tell the people you're worried about finding out. Nobody I have told about this even cared. The only thing scammers have over you is fear, and if you take that away from them they've got nothing."
WHERE TO GET HELP:
If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.
OR IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:
• 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP) (available 24/7)
• YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633
• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
• KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757 or TEXT 4202
Written by: Katie Glass
© The Times of London