Northern Ireland

Online crime gangs 'prey on fear' to target men around the world

Ronan Hughes Image copyright Mid Ulster Mail
Image caption Ronan Hughes took his own life after he was tricked into posting images online

International criminals "prey on fear" to extort money from men around the world, a BBC correspondent has said.

Vicious internet cons have come into sharp focus after a Northern Ireland teenager took his own life when he was tricked into posting images online.

County Tyrone schoolboy Ronan Hughes, 17, was found dead on Friday 5 June.

Police have said they are investigating the possibility that an attempt was made to blackmail him.

A priest told mourners at Ronan's funeral that the teenager "did not take his own life but his life was taken from him" by someone "guilty of a heinous crime".

One growing form of online crime targeting thousands of men is so-called sextortion.

Also known as webcam blackmail, it involves overseas criminals scouring the web for people they can build a rapport with, before deceiving them into performing a sexual act on video.

The footage is recorded and then used to blackmail victims for money.

It is an international crime happening on an industrial scale, which makes it difficult for police to catch those responsible.

Targeted

Last year, BBC News correspondent Angus Crawford joined police in the Philippines on a raid for sextortion suspects.

He traced two Filipino men suspected of blackmailing a Scottish teenager, Daniel Perry from Dunfermline, who took his own life after he had been tricked into taking part in an explicit Skype chat.

Image caption Police in the Philippines find sextortion material on a hard drive in a forensics lab

The plot that Daniel fell victim to is believed to be similar to the one that had targeted Ronan.

Mr Crawford told BBC Radio Ulster's Good Morning Ulster that the Philippines is the "global capital of this kind of crime".

"Internet connections in the Philippines are very cheap and very easy, despite it being a very poor country," he said.

"That allows a culture where individuals and organised crime can deliberately target people in richer countries with this kind of fraud."

Those involved will seek out any man, anywhere in the world, who they see as vulnerable, even if those targets only have a small amount of money.

"Sometimes they are literally individuals sitting in their kitchen with a laptop, doing this by themselves," Mr Crawford said.

"Sometimes they are organised crime groups, connected to other organised gangs, and they are running whole operations.

"We saw one place where there had been effectively a call centre - all it had as its main aim was to befriend men around the world on Facebook, trick them into these explicit videos and then extort them.

"They prey on fear. The victims are terrified of the social impact on them of this being revealed."

Image caption Police say sextortion gangs operate out of this slum near Manila in the Philippines

When in the Phillppines, police told Mr Crawford of one man they had arrested as part of their investigation who had made £1.5m in less than a year.

"The truth is that the scale of the problem is simply rampant, and it can really only be solved by education" he added.

Frightening

Wayne May runs the Scam Survivors website, monitoring new ways scammers use the web to exploit people.

He said sextortion is one of the easiest cons to deal with even though it can be desperately frightening for the victim.

His advice is simple - do not send money to the scammer because if you do they will come back to demand more.

"We've dealt with over 4,000 cases this year alone," he said.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Ronan "did not take his own life but his life was taken from him", a priest told mourners at his funeral

"Because the scammers are constantly targeting people, if you can stop engaging with them they will quickly move on.

"The advice we give to people is to deactivate their Facebook and log out of Skype and other social networks for at least two weeks.

"When you do reactivate, make sure the scammer isn't on your friends list. And change your username - this will change your Facebook URL, so if the scammer does try to return to the old address it will be a dead link."

Jim Gamble, the former head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, said that while children caught up in a sextortion scam may feel excruciatingly embarrassed today, that can be overcome.

"The passage of time heals a lot in this," Mr Gamble said.

"I've seen children who have exposed themselves in photographs online where they think they just can't face anyone, that they just can't continue.

"And when their family is wrapped round them, when they get support and when police are involved they are able to move on with their lives, so there is absolute hope."

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