‘Deeply disturbing’: Children tricked into sharing explicit images as ‘sextortion’ cases rise | Science and technology news

Reports of children falling victim to a form of online sexual blackmail have risen sharply this year, a charity has warned.

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) said it had received an “unprecedented” 191 reports of “sextortion” in the first half of this year, compared with 30 reports in all of last year.

The number of reports where action was taken increased by 257% in the same period – and at least 6% of the content involved the most serious Category A images, the IWF said.

Sextortion is a form of extortion where a child is tricked into sending sexual images of themselves to abusers, who then threaten to share the images with friends, family or more widely on the internet if they are not paid.

The IWF has said that teenagers, predominantly boys, are most likely to be targeted on social media platforms. Adult abusers trick victims into thinking they are talking to a young person of the opposite sex before convincing them to send an explicit picture of themselves.

The charity’s warning came as the government’s Online security bill faces its final stages in the Houses of Parliament this week – and campaigners have written to the heads of tech companies to require them to make online services safe for children.

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Online victims write to tech bosses

Security Minister Tom Tugendhat said: “We are working closely with the IWF and international partners and investing in new capabilities to improve law enforcement’s response to this specific threat. But we also need technology companies to do their part.”

The minister said he had written to the Meta boss Mark Zuckerberg regarding the “deeply worrying” statistics, as abusers often target their victims on social media platforms.

He said he urged Zuckeberg to “ensure children’s safety is maintained as he rolls out end-to-end encryption on Instagram Direct and Facebook Messenger”.

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‘Significant concern’

IWF Chief Executive Susie Hargreaves OBE said: “It is shocking to see more children being cynically targeted in this way by manipulative abusers online.

“Extortion is a serious offense and a matter for the police, and children or adults who are victims of this type of abuse should contact local law enforcement.”

The charity has said that as well as offenders sometimes being successful in their attempts to extract money from victims, the emotional impact of the practice can lead children to self-harm and take their own lives.

Ian Critchley, the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s head of child protection and abuse investigations, said: “This data is deeply worrying; it shows a significant increase in the appalling and cynical way in which criminals seek to make money from abuse and coercion, without regard to the lifelong harm it inflicts on these children and young people.”

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Wendy Hart, deputy director of child sexual abuse at the National Crime Agency (NCA), said it had seen an increase in cases of sextortion and that it was “a matter of significant concern”.

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