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Dublin: 5 °C Wednesday 17 October, 2018
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Teachers, judges and actors are all falling victim to online sex blackmailers

The sextortion scams are typically run by criminal gangs working out of several different countries.

Image: Shutterstock/Alex Ruhl

HIGHLY ORGANISED CRIMINAL gangs are manipulating people into engaging in sex acts on camera and then using the footage to blackmail them for large sums of money.

The scam typically involves an older man being befriended on social media by what appears to be a young, attractive, person.

The interactions very quickly ramp up in intensity and become sexual. Before long the man is asked to perform a sexual act, which is captured on camera.

Almost immediately, the man is hit with messages threatening to release the images to his friends, family and co-workers if he does not pay a ransom.

The gangs are based out of several different countries and often have staff working on shift around the clock, according to a Prime Time investigation which will air on RTÉ One tonight.

Teachers, members of the judiciary, actors and other prominent people have fallen victim to the scams. They are specifically targeted because of their high profiles.

The phenomenon is under-reported due to shame and embarrassment, which is exactly what the scammers rely upon and why people tend to pay up almost instantly. The ransom demands typically range from €200-€300, but can even be up to €1,000.

Prime Time will air the shocking story of a man who handed over €15,000 to the criminal gangs over a 16 month period. Despite this they still published his material online and he is still being hounded by the blackmailers to this day.

The programme also hears from another victim, an Irish man living in London, who was targeted on an online dating app. An extract of the man’s story was heard on Morning Ireland today.

After striking up a conversation with what appeared to be a woman, the man was asked for pictures of himself. Within five minutes of sending a video he was sent a list of all his friends and family and a threat to release the video if he did not send money immediately.

“I’ll be honest my heart just sank. It was terrifying, I’ve never experienced anything like it,” the man said.

My initial reaction was ‘I have to leave my job.’ My second reaction was ‘I have to leave London, I have to leave people I know and set up a new life somewhere else’ and then, briefly, I thought ‘what is my life worth? Do I just end everything?’

In that instance the man handed over £350 before seeking help from family and contacting the police.

‘Online disinhibition effect’

As to why anyone would willingly hand over the images, cyberpsychology researcher Nicola Fox Hamilton says that a number of phenomena influence the behaviour.

She explains that the “online disinhibition effect” means people are more likely to say and do things online that we wouldn’t do offline.

“Anonymity is a part of it because we think that other people don’t know who we are, even to a certain degree, we’re more likely to say things that we wouldn’t. Invisibility is a big part of it,” Fox Hamilton says.

If you can’t see the other person, you can’t see how they’re reacting, you can’t hear their tone of voice, their facial expression, you’re more likely to say things that you might not say offline.

This type of communication can get intimate quite quickly and it can be even more emotionally intense than offline communication.

Fox Hamilton added:

Between those two things, being more disinhibited and very intimate, very intense communication, it leads people to do things that, rationally, they think they wouldn’t have done if they had thought about it.

What to do if you’re targeted

It’s very difficult to say how widespread the crime is because the victims often don’t report it.

Gardaí say they receive approximately a dozen reports of incidents each year but they also receive numerous inquiries from people who don’t want to make a formal complaint.

Cybercrime experts told Prime Time that around 15 cases a week are coming to individual companies or agencies who are investigating this sort of crime.

Gardaí advise people who are targeted by the blackmailers not to hand over any money, to close down their social media accounts and to speak to the gardaí as soon as possible.

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Ceimin Burke

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