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Sextortion: what is it and why is it in the news?

The National Crime Agency has issued an alert to UK teachers following an increase in sextortion: a type of online blackmail in which the offender threatens to release nude or intimate photos of the victim.

Sextortion is a financially-motivated crime. Victims are asked to pay, either with money or the purchase of gift cards, pre-paid credit etc. 

A high proportion of sextortion victims are thought to be children and teenagers, in particular teenage boys. Sextortion has recently been in the news after a Scottish teenager, 16-year-old Murray Dowey, took his own life after being targeted in a sextortion attempt.

Incidents of sextortion rose sharply in 2023. Reports in the US more than doubled during that year. Sextortion is often the work of organised criminal gangs. The explicit material that is used to blackmail a victim can sometimes be images that were hacked from their phone or computer, or provided by the victim in response to pressure or a relationship with a fake identity. It can also be fake imagery created by the offender.

UK schools are being given advice on the different steps involved in sextortion and how to discuss the subject with students.

What to do if your child or pupil is targeted:

  • Don’t pay. There is no guarantee that the blackmail will end. You could just be asked for more and more money.
  • Stop contact and block the offender. Help your child review privacy settings on their different social media accounts.
  • Don’t delete anything that could be used as evidence.
  • Report to the police on 101 or 999 in an emergency.
  • Contact the school’s Designated Safeguarding Lead or your child’s Head of Year. They will have useful resources for support and they will want to know that these issues are occurring among students at the school.


Online Safety Advice

Be wary of “catfishing”. This is when someone creates an account pretending to be someone they’re not. If you’re contacted by someone you don’t know, remember that you have no way to know that person’s true identity, their real age, their sex or why they’re contacting you. If you do receive a message from a new account claiming to be a friend, check with your friend via a different channel.

Don’t take, send, or permit explicit or compromising images of yourself. Once an “indecent” photo of you exists, it exists forever. You can’t ever be sure that it won’t be shared or hacked. Remember that taking, downloading or sharing indecent images of children under 18 is always illegal, even if you take pictures of yourself.

Where can you find more help and information?

The Internet Watch Foundation has resources here to help you deal with threats of online blackmail and useful links including the Report Remove tool.

This YouTube video gives advice to young people in an accessible way.