A “shocking” rise in the number of children being tricked into sending sexual images of themselves to abusers who then threaten to share the pictures more widely has taken place this year, a charity has said.
The Internet Watch Foundation has received more reports from children who have fallen victim to the practice, known as sextortion, in the first half of this year than in the whole of 2022.
The charity, which runs a hotline where children can report abuse so it can be taken down, received an unprecedented 191 reports in the first half of this year compared to 30 last year.
The number of reports of the practice, which is a form of blackmail, that saw action taken rose by 257% in the same period.
At least 6% of that content involved the most serious Category A images.
Teenagers are most likely to be targeted by abusers and boys are particularly vulnerable, the charity said.
The IWF believes many abusers are adults posing as young girls, who then trick teenage boys into believing they are talking to a female peer.
Once the image is received, abusers threaten to share imagery with friends, family or more widely on the internet if they are not paid money.
Contact details of the victim’s friends and family are often shared to make the abuser’s threats appear more credible.
Victims report being frightened by the threats and worry their lives will be ruined if the explicit material ends up being shared with loved ones.
Abusers target as many children as possible on as many social media platforms as they can, and begin blackmailing their victims once a child falls into their trap.
Their attempts to extract money from their victims are successful in some cases and the emotional impact of the practice can lead children to self-harm and suicide.
The charity’s CEO Susie Hargreaves OBE 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.”
Security minister 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 CEO 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.”
Ian Critchley QPM, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead for child protection 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.
“If this is happening to you, please report it. 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 behaviour of the most cowardly individuals.”
Wendy Hart, deputy director for child sexual abuse at the National Crime Agency (NCA), said: “The NCA is seeing an increase in sextortion cases coming through law enforcement, both nationally and internationally, making this an issue of significant concern.
“This is an international priority and key to our efforts is close co-operation with charities, financial institutions and industry, who all have a part to play.”