Children as young as seven are falling victim to online sextortion scams in which cyber criminals trick people into undressing or performing indecent acts in front of a webcam before blackmailing them over the resultant footage, a new report from Europol has revealed.
The EU’s law enforcement agency said this type of crime has increased rapidly over recent years, but remains largely underreported due to the embarrassment felt by victims.
Sextortion scammers are either motivated by blackmailing minors into providing sexual material or a sexual encounter offline, or extorting money out of their victims, according to the report.
Female child victims are being blackmailed more regularly for sexually explicit material (84%) compared to their male counterparts (53%), who are targeted more often for financial gain (32% compared to 2% for female child victims).
Steven Wilson, Head of Europol’s European Cybercrime Centre, commented: “Children are increasingly using the online environment to communicate and form relationships and this should be considered as a natural part of their development.
“However, it is our collective responsibility to educate them on the threats they may experience and also protect them to make the online environment as safe as possible.
“Where something untoward happens online we should provide clear and effective reporting and support mechanisms so they understand where to turn to for assistance.”
Police across the EU have joined forces to launch a campaign to address the increase in incidents of sextortion offences. #Say NO is designed to provide advice to those who have been, or are likely to be targeted, and to strengthen reporting and support mechanisms.
The campaign is supported by a short film that explains how people can recognise a potential sextortion approach, provides online advice and highlights the importance of reporting the crime to police.
Europol said victims of sextortion scams should refuse to hand over any money and not allow embarrassment to prevent them from reporting the matter to law enforcement authorities.
The campaign was launched after the head of UK child protection charity the NSPCC said social media firms have failed to tackle online child abuse, and that allowing children to open a Facebook account was as risky as letting them go to a nightclub at the age of 11.
“We need legally enforceable universal safety standards that are built in from the start. We’ve seen time and time again social media sites allowing violent, abusive or illegal content to appear unchecked on their sites, and in the very worst cases children have died after being targeted by predators or seeing self-harm films posted online,” Peter Wanless said.
Wanless told the Sunday Times: “Enough is enough, let us have some clear standards. There is a huge sense from the public that protection from children online is nothing like good enough.”