Cases of ruthless online thugs blackmailing people over online sex pictures almost doubled in Merseyside during the pandemic.

New figures show there were 70 reports of 'sextortion' - where a victim is pressured for money by someone threatening to share nude or sexual images or video - or similar online blackmail cases, recorded by Merseyside Police in 2020/21.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) said this type of blackmail is often carried out by professional criminals.

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Victims, who are often but not exclusively men, are often contacted through social media and dating websites sometimes by a criminal posing as an attractive woman.

The women either don’t exist or may have been coerced into taking part using financial incentives or threats, with those really behind the approach using the video or images to extort money from victims.

The number of reports in Merseyside was up 75% from 40 in 2019/20, according to the figures obtained following a Freedom of Information request.

Of the reports in 2020/21, most (49) involved victims aged over 18, although there were three cases involving under 16s and 18 involving people aged 16 to 18.

Last year, no one was charged after a report of sextortion - though one person was given diversionary or educational activity to prevent further offending, and one suspect was too ill to prosecute.

In 46 cases, the investigation was closed without a suspect identified, while 22 cases couldn’t go forward due to evidential difficulties, including four where a suspect was identified but the victim no longer supported action.

Across Britain 3,984 cases of sextortion or online blackmail involving webcams or social media were reported to police in 2020/21, more than double the 1,773 reported in 2019/20.

The Revenge Porn Helpline, which supports people who have had intimate images shared or being threatened with having them shared, said cases they saw in 2020 were 161% higher than 2019, and so far cases in 2021 are already 50% above 2020 levels.

The calls predominantly come from men - in 2020, victims identifying as male made up 74% of sextortion cases and in 2021 (so far) it’s 82%.

While the helpline does see cases affecting women, they tend to be of a different type - where the campaign has lasted over a longer period of time and there is a belief on the part of the victim that this is a genuine romantic relationship

Sophie Mortimer, Helpline Manager at the Revenge Porn Helpline, said: “Year on year we are seeing rises in online offending; obviously, we see this specifically around intimate images, but I think all forms of online offending are on the rise as more and more people are spending more and more time online.

“Following on from this, the pandemic, and particularly the first lockdown, suddenly pushed many people to staying at home and all areas of their lives moving online. I saw numerous articles in various media around dating/socialising online.

“Most of the perpetrators of sextortion that we see are overseas criminal gangs: they purport to be women but often turn out to be men or gangs using video clips to lure potential victims. In fairness to law enforcement, this does make it difficult for them to take action.

“I think there isn’t enough education or awareness raising done on this, to educate particularly young men to be cautious about unsolicited overtures to sexual activity online.”

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Out of 2,796 crimes with outcomes reported across Britain in 2020/21, just 14 led to charges in 2020/21.

A spokesman for the National Crime Agency said: “Sadly this a serious and organised crime that preys upon people’s emotions and vulnerability.

"While both men and women can be victims, our evidence suggests that men aged between 19 and 35 are more frequently targeted.

“The majority of sextortion crimes can be traced back to organised crime groups, mostly based overseas. For them it’s a low risk and easy way to make money, but for victims, the impact and repercussions can be long-lasting."

While individuals may choose to pay demands, the NCA says this may not prevent images and video being shared and may just lead to more demands.

Instead it recommends not replying and contacting police or organisations like Child Exploitation Online Protection or the Revenge Porn Helpline.

The Revenge Porn Helpline has a partnership with Facebook to help UK victims who are being threatened with having their intimate images or videos shared to Facebook, Facebook Messenger or Instagram.

Where people have access to the content that is threatened with being shared, they can ask Facebook for a unique digital ‘hash’ for those images or videos.

Then when someone tries to upload or send an image or video which has been ‘hashed’ via Facebook or Instagram, this action is blocked and the person is prevented from sharing the content.

The Revenge Porn Helpline is available on 0345 6000 459 or via Facebook messenger from 10am to 4pm, Monday to Friday excluding bank holidays. They can also be emailed at [email protected] or anonymously via the reporting form on its website.

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