Internet-related blackmail is on the rise in Northern Ireland with at least two so-called “sextortion” cases reported every week, police have confirmed.
In the past six months detectives have dealt with 62 incidents of cyber-enabled blackmail targeting males of all ages.
The victims, who range from teenagers to men in their 60s, have fallen prey to faceless criminal gangs based in Nigeria, the Philippines and Ivory Coast.
Scams, which often follow weeks of grooming, involve victims sending indecent or sexually explicit photographs or videos of themselves and then being blackmailed to stop the footage being released to family or friends.
Detective Superintendent Rachel Shields, from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) public protection branch, said the criminals are indiscriminate.
“There is no age limit and there is no particular type of person that they are targeting,” she said.
“The culprits will ask for anything from £100 or £200 to thousands of pounds, euros or dollars.”
The issue of online blackmail hit the headlines in June when Co Tyrone teenager Ronan Hughes took his own life after what his family described as a “relentless” campaign of bullying by a Nigerian gang.
The 17-year-old, from Clonoe near Coalisland, was duped into posting intimate photos online after receiving pictures of a girl.
He was then blackmailed for £3,000 by criminals who threatened to upload the images to his friends’ Facebook pages.
Other cases reported to police since June include a 46-year-old man who was asked to pay £300 to a crime gang in Nigeria; an 18-year-old man who was blackmailed for £300 by someone in the Philippines; and a 28-year-old man who was asked for 9,000 euro (£6,600) by an extortionist traced to Africa.
DS Shields said: “These people are very clever. They are getting to be very good at what they do and they are very believable.
“There are individuals out there making a lot of money and what they are doing is totally illegal.
“It is a crime and we take it very seriously.”
Police believe cyber-enabled blackmail crimes are generally under-reported and in some cases people prefer to pay the money rather than contact police.
However, victims have been urged not to pay the scammers.
Instead, they should cease all contact and report the matter.
If someone has paid, the advice from police is not to panic as it can still be investigated.
DS Shields added: “We would urge anyone who has been the victim of cyber-related blackmail to come forward and report it to police on 101 or 999 in an emergency.
“Even though it may be embarrassing, anybody who is the victim of such a crime should be reassured that we are able to deal with it.”
As well as a dedicated cyber crime centre, the PSNI has a team of technical forensic officers and cyber investigation units plus a number of specially trained officers operating in the districts to deal with the increasing number of online crimes.
They also work with other agencies including the National Crime Agency, Interpol and Europol.
DS Shields said: “The message to the criminals is that it is not impossible to track down and find you.”