'Sextortion' on the rise in South Yorkshire, say police, as they reassure victims 'you are not alone'
Young men in South Yorkshire are increasingly falling prey to 'sextortion' - where they are tricked into performing sex acts online and then blackmailed.
At least a dozen cases of the growing phenomenon have been recorded across the county this year, according to local police, who believe that figure is just the tip of the iceberg.
They are backing a national campaign to encourage more victims to come forward by assuring them they are not alone and need not fear judgement.
Paul Leonard, major incident room office manager at South Yorkshire Police, said criminal gangs overseas were assuming fake web personas as attractive young women to lure unsuspecting victims - typically men aged 17 to 25, and sometimes as young as 14.
He said the predators would often stalk their marks by researching them online to appear more convincing, before striking up a relationship over the internet and seducing them into performing sex acts.
They are then recorded without their knowledge and threatened that if they don't hand over money the footage will be shared with friends and family. Police say they know of at least four cases in the UK where desperate victims have taken their own lives.
"We recognise the victims may be feeling vulnerable and experiencing shame and anxiety but we're here to help you. You're not alone and you won't be judged," said Mr Leonard, who added that sextortion was on the rise in South Yorkshire as it was across the UK.
"It's tragic to think there have been suicides where young men who have been victims of this sinister crime felt they had nowhere to turn.
"We don't want anyone to feel like that. Come to us and we will do everything in our power to find out who's behind it.
"There are 12 cases which are under investigation after being reported this year in South Yorkshire, but I'm convinced there are many more victims out there who have decided not to report it and I would urge them to come forward."
The young men are not the only victims. Police say the women used to ensnare them are often coerced into doing so.
Recorded cases of financially motivated webcam blackmail - as 'sextortion' is officially known - have more than doubled in the UK over the last year, with 864 so far in 2016, compared with 385 during the whole of 2015.
But the National Crime Agency and National Police Chiefs Council believe thousands of people are likely to be falling prey each year, with many victims failing to report the matter.
They have launched a national awareness campaign encouraging more blackmail victims to come forward and warning those at risk to be careful about who they befriend online and share intimate details with.
Roy Sinclair, from the NCA's Anti-Kidnap and Extortion Unit (AKEU), said: "There is huge under-reporting of these kinds of offences, often because victims feel ashamed or embarrassed, but of course criminals are relying on that reaction in order to succeed.
"This is why we are launching this new campaign. We want victims and potential victims to know how they can protect themselves and to understand what to do if they are targeted."
Police advice for victims
Don't panic: contact your local police and internet service provider immediately. The police will take your case seriously, will deal with it in confidence and will not judge you for being in this situation.
Don't communicate further with the criminals: take screen shots of all your communication. Suspend your Facebook account (but don't delete it, so the data is preserved as evidence) and use the online reporting process to report the matter to Skype, YouTube etc to have any video blocked and to set up an alert in case the video resurfaces.
Don't pay: many victims who have paid have been sent escalating demands for money, and in some cases explicit videos have been posted even after payment was sent. If you have already paid, cancel the payment if it is not too late or make a note of where the money was collected.
Preserve evidence: do not deleted any correspondence, and note down all details provided by the offenders, such as the Skype name (particularly the Skype ID), the Facebook URL, the Western Union or MoneyGram Money Transfer Control Number (MTCN) and any photos/videos that were sent. Be aware that the scammer's Skype name will be different to their Skype ID, which is what police need. To find the ID, right click on their profile, select 'view profile' and then look for the name shown in blue rather than the one above it in black. It will be next to the word 'Skype' and will have no spaces in it.
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