UK children 'forced into abuse' by web blackmail
Offenders often threaten to share naked pictures of victims with friends and family
The trend for online blackmail to cause children to harm themselves is small, but its growth is worrying experts who investigate child sexual exploitation.
Children as young as eight are being blackmailed into performing sexual acts on webcams by abusers in increasing numbers, research by the UK’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre (Ceop) shows.
In a report published today, Ceop says it has uncovered a number of children self harming or, in one case, taking their own life as a result.
The trend for online blackmail to cause children to harm themselves is small, but its growth is worrying experts who investigate child sexual exploitation. In the past two years Ceop has investigated 12 cases where children were blackmailed into performing sexual acts on a webcam.
According to figures from police forces in the UK and abroad, 424 children have been victims of online sexual blackmail in some form in the last two years - 184 in the UK.
Ceop says research shows that of those victims, seven children seriously harmed themselves - including six from the UK, one of whom took their life.
Often the offenders - who frequently pose as a child online at first - go on to threaten to share naked pictures of the victim with friends and family unless they do what they are told.
In one case which Ceop investigated, the offender collated images he had obtained by blackmailing a child into a file entitled “Slaves”.
Andy Baker, deputy chief executive of Ceop, said: “These offenders are cowards. They hide behind a screen, and in many cases make hollow threats which they know they will never act on because by sharing these images it will only bring the police closer to them.
“Our research shows that the power offenders use on their victims means children who are forced into performing acts on webcam or sending pictures feel trapped, and some tragically go on to self harm or in the worst cases to take their own lives.”
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has set up a 24-hour helpline for children or adults worried about such blackmail.
Forty-six forces were asked to provide details of cases where, in the past 12 months, a child had been coerced into producing sexual images, then threatened with them being distributed, and whether the victim had self harmed as a result.
One teenager interviewed by police in a blackmail case told investigators she was targeted when she was 12. “This person started talking to me in the internet and said he was around my age,” she said.
“Then the conversation sort of developed into other things. He’d steer the conversation in a way that was turning a bit dirty then he’d start asking for other types of pictures as well.
“If you try and say: ‘Oh I don’t want to talk about that,’ he’d threaten or blackmail me, saying he’d send my dad all the chat logs if I didn’t do what he said ... he started to do that every week.
“He always used to say: ‘You know what happens if you don’t send me any’.”
Investigators first uncovered online blackmail for abuse in 2010 in an investigation codenamed Hattie. It led in 2012 to the jailing of two Kuwaiti brothers. They had targeted 110 children, including 78 in the UK, and forced them into performing sex acts online.
Researchers say children are more vulnerable to such grooming if they are isolated or suffering problems at school or home. Parental monitoring of online use by young people is one of the key ways to prevent children being targeted. But more than two thirds of parents do not have filters on their children’s smartphones.
Abusers often use instant messaging on smartphones to contact victims - it was used in a third of cases in the last year.
Letzgo Hunting, a Leicestershire-based group targeting potential child abusers, announced last night that it was abandoning its operations.
The move follows the suicide of Gary Cleary, whom the group had accused of grooming a child over the internet, and criticism by police that its tactics could disrupt their own operations.
Members posed online as girls aged 12 to 15, interacted with men, arranged real-life meetings, filmed the confrontations and passed the evidence to police.
Guardian News & Media