IWF reports ‘shocking’ rise in the sextortion of boys

In the first six months of this year, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) said it received more reports involving ‘sextortion’ than in the whole of 2022.

Sep 20, 2023
By Paul Jacques
Picture: IWF

It says there has been a “shocking” increase in the reports of children tricked into sharing sexual images of themselves by abusers intent on extorting money or further imagery from their victims.

Older teens, aged 14 to 17 years old, are the most at risk, with boys apparently being targeted most often, says the IWF.

The latest figures come as the long-awaited Online Safety Bill finally passed its final Parliamentary debate on Tuesday (September 19) and is now ready to become law.

The Bill provides firmer protections for children, more control for adults and clarity for social platforms to prevent and remove illegal content and prevent children from accessing harmful and age-inappropriate content.

The IWF found that in the first six months of 2023, reports of confirmed child sexual abuse involving ‘sextortion’ surged by 257 per cent compared with the whole of 2022.

Sexually coerced extortion, or ‘sextortion’ as it is often referred to, occurs when sexually explicit images or videos are exchanged online and the victim is subsequently blackmailed with threats to share the content with friends and family or more widely on the internet.

At least six per cent of the content is classed as Category A, which is the most severe and can include instances of penetration.

The IWF said its hotline investigated an “unprecedented” 191 reports of suspected sextortion in the first half of 2023, compared with only 30 in the whole of 2022.

IWF analysts were able to confirm 75 of those 191 sextortion reports as child sexual abuse material and took steps to have the images and videos blocked and removed from the internet. This is a 257 per cent increase in the material compared with last year when analysts actioned 21 reports.

Ian Critchley QPM, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child rotection and abuse investigations, said: “Criminals and abusers who seek to exploit children will stop at nothing – and this data is deeply disturbing; showing a significant rise in the appalling and cynical way criminals seek to make money from abuse and coercion, with no thought for the life-long harm it causes these children and young people.”

He is urging young people being targeted in this way not to “suffer in silence”, and to report the “cowardly” criminal trying to exploit them.

“If this is happening to you, please report it,” he said. “We know that you may be terrified of the threats and demands for payment and may be worrying about the personal impact on you. These criminals will try to make you think that you will get in trouble – but this blackmail, and extortion, is the criminal behavior of the most cowardly individuals.”

IWF analysts say some victims are afraid of going to the police and believe abuser’s threats that “they are in the wrong, when in fact they are the victims here, and it is the blackmailers who have broken the law”.

But Mr Critchley said policing works with partners to support children who are victimised in this way, and urged them not to “suffer in silence”.

He is also encouraging parents, carers or friends of someone who is being extorted to make sure it is reported to the police and/or partners at the IWF so that they “can put a stop to this and help the young person move forward with their lives”.

IWF analysts believe many abusers are adults posing as young girls, who use either fake profile images or subterfuge to convince teenage boys that they are having an online conversation with a female peer.

Once they have received a sexual image, the abusers threaten to share the imagery more broadly if they are not paid money. In some cases, victims are pressured into providing more images.

Victims report being frightened by the threats and demands for payment or more images – fearing that their lives will be ruined if their nude images are shared with peers or family.

Many of the threatening messages from blackmailers include contact details of the victim’s friends and family.

The perpetrators demand money via online payment apps, with some demands as low as £20 while other amounts are much higher.

A large proportion of the blackmailers’ messages follow a particular formula or ‘look’ which is indicative of the mass nature of the sextortion attempts, say IWF analysts who see the messages. Abusers target as many children as possible, on a variety of popular social media platforms, and then begin the blackmail when a child falls into their trap.

The emotional impact of sexual extortion on a child can be devastating, placing vulnerable victims in danger of self harm or suicide, says the IWF.

UK Minister for Security Tom Tugendhat said: “These statistics are deeply troubling. We are working closely with the IWF and international partners and investing in new capabilities to enhance law enforcement’s response to this specific threat. But we also need tech companies to do their bit.

“That’s why we have written to Meta’s chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg personally, to urge him to ensure child safety is upheld whilst rolling out end-to-end encryption on Instagram Direct and Facebook Messenger, and not to enable these criminals to go undetected and further exploit vulnerable children.”

Susie Hargreaves OBE, chief executive officer of the IWF, said: “It is shocking to see that more children are being cynically targeted in this way by manipulative abusers online.

“Blackmail is a serious offence, and a matter for the police, and children or adults who fall victim to this kind of abuse should contact local law enforcement.

“The IWF helps make sure child victims of sextortion are protected and given the reassurance their imagery will not be distributed online.

“IWF analysts will always respond to victims when contact details are available and offer advice and assistance for next steps.”

Wendy Hart, deputy director for child sexual abuse at the National Crime Agency (NCA), said it is seeing an increase in sextortion cases coming through law enforcement, both nationally and internationally, making this “an issue of significant concern”.

“As the chair of the Virtual Global Taskforce, the NCA is working with law enforcement partners around the world to coordinate the best possible response for victims and try to prevent this from happening in the first place,” she said. “This is an international priority and key to our efforts is close cooperation with charities, financial institutions and industry, who all have a part to play.

“The impact this crime has on victims can be totally devastating. Victims often feel responsible for being duped, and blackmailers will reinforce this to stop them from going to the police. This is absolutely not the case and you are not alone – unfortunately, thousands of other people have been deceived in this way.”

Most of the sextortion reports come into the IWF via the online Report Remove service. Of the confirmed child sexual abuse material from January to June of this year, 92 per cent of the reports were from Report Remove. This tool is run jointly by Childline and the IWF and allows UK children who are under 18 to confidently report sexual images and videos of themselves that can be blocked if they are worried they have shared images which risk being circulated online.

It has allowed more children to report that they are being sexually exploited and provides the ability for them to talk to a Childline counsellor if they want support.

The IWF says wherever possible, analysts will respond to all reports of sexual extortion and offer advice and reassurance to children (and sometimes parents), pointing them to relevant support services.

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