Surge in ‘sextortion’ scams in Scotland during Covid-19 pandemic - with youngest victim aged 10

Reports of ‘sextortion’ scams in Scotland have surged by more than 40 percent during the pandemic - with the youngest victim aged just ten.

Between January and August last year, 283 crimes were recorded compared to 196 offences in the same period in 2019 - a 44 percent rise.

Sextortion is cyber-enabled extortion which involves the threat of sharing sexual information, images or clips to extort money from people, whether images actually exist or not.

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Footage or images obtained through webcam recording or from footage or images unwittingly provided by the victim, were used as leverage in more than 80 percent of the reported incidents.

Two thirds of the extortions demanded money from the victim to avoid disclosure of sexual images or footage they had provided to criminals.

Sextortion victims were aged between ten and 85, with nearly two thirds of them aged 25 or under.

Assistant Chief Constable Pat Campbell, of Police Scotland, said: “Becoming a victim of extortion is devastating particularly if the extortion involves the threat of sexual exposure.

“Social media has become the default for communicating and meeting people during lockdown, for both adults and children. Criminals are targeting people online and tapping into vulnerabilities.

Reports of ‘sextortion’ scams in Scotland have surged by more than 40 percent during the pandemic - with the youngest victim aged just ten. Pic: PAReports of ‘sextortion’ scams in Scotland have surged by more than 40 percent during the pandemic - with the youngest victim aged just ten. Pic: PA
Reports of ‘sextortion’ scams in Scotland have surged by more than 40 percent during the pandemic - with the youngest victim aged just ten. Pic: PA

“It is distressing to realise that actions you thought were private are now a source of threat. It is a particularly worrying trend that we are now seeing increasing numbers of children being targeted and threatened in this way.

“Criminals don’t care about the hurt or damage they cause, they only care about money. And once they identify a victim it is likely their demands will continue.

“We can’t underestimate how important online apps and platforms have been for people during lockdown but sometimes the people you meet online are not who they say they are. We want people to be aware of the risks and stay safe online.

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“If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sextortion please contact the police. Every report will be treated seriously, sensitively and you will be treated with respect.”

Among children aged between ten and 15, most extortion demands were for further images or videos - but a number included webcam extortions for money or threats of violence.

In the other age brackets, money was the main reason for targeting victims.

About 60 percent of victims were male and just over half of male victims were aged between 13 and 23.

Around half of female victims were aged ten to 17, and girls and young women under 18 were most vulnerable to being targeted for images.

Young men in their late teens and early 20s were the most vulnerable to being targeted for money.

‘They prey on that fear’

It was reported earlier this year that a 22-year-old Edinburgh man was caught out by a sextortion scam when he was contacted by someone posing as an attractive young woman on Instagram messenger. The next day they exchanged nude images - a move instigated by the fake profile which he said appeared genuine.

Within seconds he was sent a collage of the three nude photos he had shared along with the profiles of his followers and a threat that the images would be sent to them unless he paid $200 to a Paypal account.

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The man said he was in a state of shock and felt vulnerable but decided to call his mother to explain what happened. He said that, although the idea of speaking about it with a parent may seem awkward, she was a massive help in calming him down.

He later contacted police about the incident, which did not result in the images being shared.

The man also urged others to get to know someone for sure before going any further and not to send anything personal. He said: “They prey on that fear if you are caught in the moment. Once the immediate shock is over, call a friend or parent and call the police because they are very good at dealing with it.

“I have to come to terms with being a bit naive, and it’s a tough lesson to learn, but it does open your eyes to the real world.”

The potentially tragic consequences of sextortion scams was highlighted in 2013 when Dunfermline 17-year-old, Daniel Perry, took his own life after being targeted by an organised gang involved in cyber-crime in the Philippines. The teenager believed he was chatting to an American girl online but was then understood to have been told by blackmailers the conversation had been recorded and would be shared with friends and family unless he paid up.

Police ask people to consider what they share and who they share it with and that they should, ideally, only share pictures online they are happy with friends and family seeing.

Switching communication from one platform to another is a tactic used during these scams to gain as much information about a victim as possible.

The simplest way to avoid falling victim is to refrain from accepting friend requests from people you don't know. Frequently victims are lured into a false sense of security when they observe offenders have the same mutual friends. This again forms part of the tactics utilised by these individuals.

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Police also ask parents of children who are gaming and streaming online to check the security settings on these platforms to try and prevent any offenders contacting them.

If there is anyone asking you to do something that you believe to be wrong online, please let your parents, guardians or teachers know, or contact police on 101. Police will support you and your report will be taken in the utmost confidence.