THE GROWTH OF ‘SEXTORTION’

Par­ents can’t imag­ine their chil­dren shar­ing sex­ual pho­tos of them­selves, but they do – and the fall­out can be cat­a­strophic if the im­ages fall into the wrong hands

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Jen­nifer O’Con­nell

It was close to mid­night on a sum­mer’s night in 2015 when Ro­nan Hughes walked into his mother’s bed­room in Ty­rone and shared a prob­lem. Un­til that mo­ment, he had been a nor­mal, “quiet, happy-go-lucky” 17-year-old. He played GAA, and was just back from a trip to Slane with some friends to see Foo Fight­ers. That night, he handed his phone to his mother and said, “I’m in trou­ble here.”

“They were l ook­ing for more than £3,000 ster­ling for an im­age he had posted and told him they were go­ing to show it to all his friends,” Teresa Hughes told the Irish News. “He texted them back to say, ‘but I’m only 17’.”

Ro­nan Hughes was the vic­tim of the rel­a­tively new crime of “sextortion”, in which vic­tims are co­erced or ma­nip­u­lated into pro­duc­ing sex­ual con­tent, usu­ally by peo­ple they have met on­line, and then black­mailed with the threat of pub­li­ca­tion of the im­ages.

“On­line sex­ual co­er­cion and ex­tor­tion of chil­dren, as one of the new crime phe­nom­ena of the dig­i­tal age, is heav­ily un­der­stud­ied,” said a re­port pub­lished by Europol, which on Tues­day launched a cam­paign i n con­junc­tion with An Garda Síochána and other Euro­pean law-en­force­ment agen­cies, urg­ing young peo­ple to “Say No”.

Ro­nan and his fa­ther, Ger­ard, im­me­di­ately re­ported the in­ci­dent to the lo­cal PSNI, who said there was not a lot they could do. Three days later, on June 5th, 2015, Ro­nan got a mes­sage from a friend to say she had re­ceived a link con­tain­ing im­ages, but hadn’t opened them.

His fa­ther im­me­di­ately left work to go home and sup­port his son. By the time he got there, Ro­nan was dead. He had taken his own life.

His par­ents told their story pub­licly be­cause they wanted to raise aware­ness of the crime, and be­cause they be­lieve other par­ents are naive about what their chil­dren are do­ing on­line.

Four deaths by sui­cide

The “Say No” cam­paign fea­tures a pow­er­ful YouTube video il­lus­trat­ing how sextortion – Europol prefers “the on­line sex­ual co­er­cion and ex­tor­tion of chil­dren ( oSCEC)” – un­folds.

The pur­pose of the cam­paign, says Det Supt De­clan Daly of the Garda Na­tional Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices Bureau, is aware­ness and ed­u­ca­tion of the risks and the role that An Garda Síochána can play.

“The in­ter­net is a great tool, but there are risks. When par­ents are giv­ing the child their own phone that’s the time to have a con­ver­sa­tion about the dan­gers. We tell chil­dren don’t talk to strangers on the street. Why should we al­low chil­dren to talk to strangers on the in­ter­net?

“It is dif­fi­cult for par­ents to un­der­stand why their child would share ex­plicit sex­ual im­ages on­line, but the re­al­ity is that it hap­pens. When it in­volves a co­erced or a re­quested im­age and an el­e­ment of black­mail­ing or ex­ploita­tion, you’re in a very dan­ger­ous area, and the con­se­quences are sig­nif­i­cant,” says Supt Daly.

In 2016, the UK Na­tional Crime Agency’s anti- kid­nap and ex­tor­tion unit dealt with 1,247 re­ports of cyber-en­abled black­mail of­fences. In 2015, there were four deaths by sui­cide – all young men – linked to sextortion in the UK.

The Na­tional Cen­ter for Miss­ing and Ex­ploited Chil­dren’s Cy­berTi­pline be­gan track­ing the phe­nom­e­non in the US in 2013, and found a 90 per cent increase in in­ci­dents be­tween 2014 and 2015 and a 150 per cent increase in the first few months of 2016.

Un­der-re­ported

There are no par­al­lel fig­ures for Ire­land. “A lot of it is un­der- re­ported,” says Det Supt Daly. “There are chil­dren out there who have sent im­ages and haven’t told any­body, and may be very wor­ried about the con­se­quences.”

How­ever, a hand­ful of cases have been made pub­lic. One man ( 29) was jailed for six years last year, af­ter he black­mailed a 13- year- old girl from his com­mu­nity into hav­ing sex with him on three oc­ca­sions in 2012, us­ing a com­pro­mis­ing photo. The Cen­tral Crim­i­nal Court heard that the pho­to­graph was not es­pe­cially com­pro­mis­ing, but the girl’s cul­tural background meant it would have caused prob­lems for her.

In 83 per cent of cases, the mo­ti­va­tion of the per­pe­tra­tor is sex­ual grat­i­fi­ca­tion and in most, the vic­tim is fe­male, Europol found. The of­fend­ers in these cases are typ­i­cally male and op­er­at­ing alone.

Fi­nan­cially mo­ti­vated crimes ac­count for less than 10 per cent of all sextortion cases, and in those cases the vic­tims are more likely to be male. Last year, a young man from Cork con­tacted a ra­dio sta­tion to say he had been the vic­tim of a black­mail scam af­ter he was sur­rep­ti­tiously videoed watch­ing a wo­man per­form a sex act on cam­era.

‘In­dus­trial scale’

Two raids car­ried out by In­ter­pol in 2014 in the Philip­pines found these scams were be­ing op­er­ated “on an al­most in­dus­trial scale from call cen­tre- style of­fices”. “Cy­berblack­mail agents” were trained and of­fered bonus in­cen­tives such as hol­i­days, cash or mo­bile phones.

Ac­cord­ing to Europol, of­fend­ers em­ploy a wide range of ma­nip­u­la­tion tactics, in­clud­ing re­cip­ro­ca­tion (“I’ll show you if you show me”); de­vel­op­ing a bond; pre­tend­ing to be a sup­port­ive friend or a sym- pa­thetic vic­tim; sur­rep­ti­tiously record­ing the child; of­fer­ing money or drugs; or pre­tend­ing to work for a mod­el­ling agency.

Det Supt Daly says re­quests for sex­ual im­agery can come two or three sen­tences into an on­line in­ter­ac­tion. “We’ve seen chats with chil­dren and adults where that in­ap­pro­pri­ate ques­tion comes very quickly. They ask, ‘ Have you had sex yet?’ or ‘ Can you send me a pic?’ If the child says no, they move on to the next pos­si­ble vic­tim, un­til they get some vul­ner­a­ble child that will say yes.”

Shared im­ages

The mes­sage Supt Daly wants to get across is that “if a child ever re­ceives re­quest for an im­age that they’re not com­fort­able with, sim­ply say no and tell your par­ents. If you have shared im­ages, and you’re at risk of ex­ploita­tion, don’t share any more. Don’t pay any­thing. Look for help.

“Go to your par­ents – your par­ents will be there to sup­port you, and An Garda Síochána will be there to sup­port you. Don’t delete any­thing. Block the per­son. Re­port it to the po­lice – we’ll move in and gather what­ever ev­i­dence we need.”

Track­ing these crimes is dif­fi­cult be­cause of the bor­der­less na­ture of the in­ter­net, but it is not im­pos­si­ble.

In Oc­to­ber last year, a 31- year- old ap­peared in court in Bucharest, charged with pro­duc­ing and dis­tribut­ing in­de­cent im­ages of chil­dren and black­mail. The PSNI said the charges were con­nected to a “com­plex and pro­tracted” in­ves­ti­ga­tion into we­b­cam black­mail linked to the death of Ro­nan Hughes.

Psy­chother­a­pist Stella O’Mal­ley, t he au­thor of Cot­ton Wool Kids and a new book, Bully-Proof Kids, says sex­ting has be­come al­most a rite of pas­sage. “Teenagers to­day are hav­ing less phys­i­cal sex than our gen­er­a­tion did – in­stead, they are hav­ing more ‘ vir­tual sex’. In a weird way, it’s less awk- ward and eas­ier to han­dle.

“I think most teenagers of to­day will ex­per­i­ment with on­line sex­u­alised be­hav­iour – it’s akin to their par­ents smok­ing be­hind the bike sheds or play­ing truth-or-dare as teenagers. So there’s lit­tle point in clos­ing down ev­ery dis­cus­sion with heavy warn­ings” and threats.

Last year, a young man from Cork con­tacted a ra­dio sta­tion to say he had been the vic­tim of a black­mail scam af­ter he was sur­rep­ti­tiously videoed watch­ing a wo­man per­form a sex act on cam­era Fi­nan­cially mo­ti­vated crimes ac­count for less than 10 per cent of all sextortion cases

Fre­quent dis­cus­sions

O’Mal­ley, who has en­coun­tered cases of sextortion in her clinic in Birr, Co Of­faly, says it is bet­ter to keep the lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion open, and to have fre­quent dis­cus­sions “about dif­fer­ent things that hap­pen on­line”.

Ed­u­ca­tion is also im­por­tant, says Det Supt Daly. The Garda plans to get the Say No cam­paign into schools and sports or­gan­i­sa­tions. “We all have to share that col­lec­tive re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­tect chil­dren – par­ents, schools, the me­dia, child pro­tec­tion ser­vices.”

Cy­berpsy­chol­o­gist Dr Mary Aiken, who is an aca­demic ad­viser to Europol, says ed­u­ca­tion on these mat­ters must be “em­bed­ded in the Irish school cur­ricu­lum. These mod­ules would re­quire con­tin­u­ous re­vi­sion in or­der to re­flect the ever-evolv­ing cyber threat land­scape.” She says a re­cent in­ter­na­tional study re­ported that a third of preschool­ers and two- thirds of pri­mary school-aged chil­dren own smart­phones or tablets. So how should par­ents re­act if their child comes to them and says they’re in trou­ble af­ter shar­ing im­ages on­line?

Over that hur­dle

“The best thing those par­ents can do is sup­port that child, who will be hurt­ing. And then ob­vi­ously re­port­ing it to An Garda Síochána. Peo­ple might be em­bar­rassed but they have to climb over that hur­dle and make that call,” says Supt Daly.

Stay calm, adds O’Mal­ley. “You may be way out of your com­fort zone but that doesn’t mean you have a li­cence to lose the head. The next 48 hours are very dan­ger­ous, as there have been too many cases of sui­cide once the im­ages go pub­lic.

“Re­main shoulder to shoulder with the child in these emo­tional hours. Un­for­tu­nately, what tends to hap­pen is the par­ents go bal­lis­tic try­ing to get the im­ages taken down and for­get about com­fort­ing the ex­posed and hu­mil­i­ated child.”

And fi­nally, O’Mal­ley says, keep a sense of per­spec­tive. “Is it re­ally that aw­ful? It would be sin­gu­larly in­ap­pro­pri­ate for fu­ture em­ploy­ers to look at im­ages of me taken when I was a drunken teenager. Adult em­ploy­ers shouldn’t be look­ing at any­thing of chil­dren un­der 18, so I don’t buy the the­ory that a child is ru­ined for life just be­cause there are ex­plicit im­ages of them on­line.”

PHO­TO­GRAPH: GETTY’

Re­quests for sex­ual im­agery can come two or three sen­tences into an on­line in­ter­ac­tion, the Garda says.

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