It was close to midnight on a summer’s night in 2015 when Ronan Hughes walked into his mother’s bedroom in Tyrone and told her about his problem.
Until that moment, he had been a normal, “quiet, happy-go-lucky” 17-year-old. He played GAA, and was just back from a trip to Slane with some friends to see Foo Fighters. That night, he handed his phone to his mother and said, “I’m in trouble here.”
“They were looking for more than £3,000 sterling for an image he had posted and told him they were going to show it to all his friends,” Teresa Hughes told the Irish News. “He texted them back to say, ‘but I’m only 17’.”
Ronan Hughes was the victim of the relatively new crime of “sextortion”, in which victims are coerced or manipulated into producing sexual content, usually by people they have met online, and then blackmailed with the threat of publication of the images.
“Online sexual coercion and extortion of children, as one of the new crime phenomena of the digital age, is heavily understudied,” said a report published by Europol, which on Tuesday launched a campaign in conjunction with An Garda Síochána and other European law-enforcement agencies, urging young people to “Say No”.
Ronan and his father, Gerard, immediately reported the incident to the local PSNI, who said there was not a lot they could do. Three days later, on June 5th, 2015, Ronan got a message from a friend to say she had received a link containing images, but hadn’t opened them.
His father immediately left work to go home and support his son. By the time he got there, Ronan was dead. He had taken his own life.
His parents told their story publicly because they wanted to raise awareness of the crime, and because they believe other parents are naive about what their children are doing online.
The “Say No” campaign features a powerful YouTube video illustrating how sextortion – Europol prefers “the online sexual coercion and extortion of children (oSCEC)” – unfolds.
The purpose of the campaign, says Det Supt Declan Daly of the Garda National Protective Services Bureau, is awareness and education of the risks and the role that An Garda Síochána can play.
“The internet is a great tool, but there are risks. When parents are giving the child their own phone that’s the time to have a conversation about the dangers. We tell children don’t talk to strangers on the street. Why should we allow children to talk to strangers on the internet?
“It is difficult for parents to understand why their child would share explicit sexual images online, but the reality is that it happens. When it involves a coerced or a requested image and an element of blackmailing or exploitation, you’re in a very dangerous area, and the consequences are significant,” says Supt Daly.
In 2016, the UK National Crime Agency’s anti-kidnap and extortion unit dealt with 1,247 reports of cyber-enabled blackmail offences in 2016. In 2015, there were four deaths by suicide – all young men – linked to sextortion in the UK.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline began tracking the phenomenon in the US in 2013, and found a 90 per cent increase in incidents between 2014 and 2015 and a 150 per cent increase in the first few months of 2016.
There are no parallel figures for Ireland. “A lot of it is under-reported,” says Det Supt Daly. “There are children out there who have sent images and haven’t told anybody, and may be very worried about the consequences.”
However, a handful of cases have been made public. One man (29) was jailed for six years last year, after he blackmailed a 13-year-old girl from his community into having sex with him on three occasions in 2012, using a compromising photo. The Central Criminal Court heard that the photograph was not especially compromising, but the girl’s cultural background meant it would have caused problems for her.
In 83 per cent of cases, the motivation of the perpetrator is sexual gratification and in most, the victim is female, Europol found. The offenders in these cases are typically male and operating alone.
Financially motivated crimes account for less than 10 per cent of all sextortion cases, and in those cases the victims are more likely to be male. Last year, a young man from Cork contacted a radio station to say he had been the victim of a blackmail scam after he was surreptitiously videoed watching a woman perform a sex act on camera.
Two raids carried out by Interpol in 2014 in the Philippines found these scams were being operated “on an almost industrial scale from call centre-style offices”. “Cyberblackmail agents” were trained and offered bonus incentives such as holidays, cash or mobile phones.
According to Europol, offenders employ a wide range of manipulation tactics, including reciprocation (“I’ll show you if you show me”); developing a bond; pretending to be a supportive friend or a sympathetic victim; surreptitiously recording the child; offering money or drugs; or pretending to work for a modelling agency.
Det Supt Daly says requests for sexual imagery can come two or three sentences into an online interaction. “We’ve seen chats with children and adults where that inappropriate question comes very quickly. They ask, ‘Have you had sex yet?’ or ‘Can you send me a pic?’ If the child says no, they move on to the next possible victim, until they get some vulnerable child that will say yes.”
The message Supt Daly wants to get across is that “if a child ever receives request for an image that they’re not comfortable with, simply say no and tell your parents. If you have shared images, and you’re at risk of exploitation, don’t share any more. Don’t pay anything. Look for help.
“Go to your parents – your parents will be there to support you, and An Garda Síochána will be there to support you. Don’t delete anything. Block the person. Report it to the police – we’ll move in and gather whatever evidence we need.”
Tracking these crimes is difficult because of the borderless nature of the internet, but it is not impossible.
In October last year, a 31-year-old appeared in court in Bucharest, charged with producing and distributing indecent images of children and blackmail. The PSNI said the charges were connected to a “complex and protracted” investigation into webcam blackmail linked to the death of Ronan Hughes.
Psychotherapist Stella O’Malley, t he author of Cotton Wool Kids and a new book, Bully-Proof Kids, says sexting has become almost a rite of passage. “Teenagers today are having less physical sex than our generation did – instead, they are having more ‘virtual sex’. In a weird way, it’s less awkward and easier to handle.
“I think most teenagers of today will experiment with online sexualised behaviour – it’s akin to their parents smoking behind the bike sheds or playing truth-or-dare as teenagers. So there’s little point in closing down every discussion with heavy warnings” and threats.
O’Malley, who has encountered cases of sextortion in her clinic in Birr, Co Offaly, says it is better to keep the lines of communication open, and to have frequent discussions “about different things that happen online”.
Education is also important, says Det Supt Daly. The Garda plans to get the Say No campaign into schools and sports organisations. “We all have to share that collective responsibility to protect children – parents, schools, the media, child protection services.”
Cyberpsychologist Dr Mary Aiken, who is an academic adviser to Europol, says education on these matters must be “embedded in the Irish school curriculum. These modules would require continuous revision in order to reflect the ever-evolving cyber threat landscape.”
She says a recent international study reported that a third of preschoolers and two-thirds of primary school-aged children own smartphones or tablets. So how should parents react if their child comes to them and says they’re in trouble after sharing images online?
“The best thing those parents can do is support that child, who will be hurting. And then obviously reporting it to An Garda Síochána. People might be embarrassed but they have to climb over that hurdle and make that call,” says Supt Daly.
Stay calm, adds O’Malley. “You may be way out of your comfort zone but that doesn’t mean you have a licence to lose the head. The next 48 hours are very dangerous, as there have been too many cases of suicide once the images go public.
“Remain shoulder to shoulder with the child in these emotional hours. Unfortunately, what tends to happen is the parents go ballistic trying to get the images down and forget about comforting the exposed and humiliated child.”
And finally, O’Malley says, keep a sense of perspective. “Is it really that awful? It would be singularly inappropriate for future employers to look at images of me taken when I was a drunken teenager. Adult employers shouldn’t be looking at anything of children under 18, so I don’t buy the theory that a child is ruined for life just because there are explicit images of them online.”