Teenager boys, aged 11 to 14, are being targeted by international criminal organisations and blackmailed for money after being tricked into sending naked photos of themselves to scammers posing as young, attractive women.
The youngsters are asked to send their parents’ credit card details and threatened that the photos will be shared on social media if they fail to do so.
The Maltese online abuse helpline received about 20 reports of financial sextortion of young boys over the past six months, explained Deborah Vassallo, the project coordinator of BeSmartOnline, part of the Maltese Safer Internet Centre seeking to promote online safety, and offering support to victims of online abuse.
Financial sextortion of young boys is increasing globally and locally. They are being targeted by criminal organisations often based in African or Asian countries. These young boys are made to believe they are chatting with a beautiful woman who sends them photos, and eventually intimate ones. They are then asked to share a naked photo of themselves in return. The minute they do so, they start blackmailing them for money. “
Reporting is not easy for them. There is the sense of guilt of sending the photos and stealing the credit card – if they get to that point – coupled with the feeling of shame. The solution is not to send money as, once they do, the criminals will not leave them alone.
Sextortion is only a part of the problem that young people have to face. The highest reports hint to cyberbullying from young people to young people as being the main online risk. Bullying can take different forms, such as through private messages, public comments using a fake account, and even fake e-mail addresses. Very often, the instigator knows the victim and is aware of the personal issues they target.
One of the worst cases we had was of a teen whose cyberbullying was linked to his father, who had just died. He was told things like: ‘I hope you lose your mother, and she has a head tumour’ . There was also the instigation to suicide. The child filed the report after speaking to someone at school, and they sought for help.
The perpetrator turned out to be a quiet boy whom the victim may have bullied in the past.
Another case involved a 15-year-old girl. A fake Instagram profile with her name and surname was created, and photos she shared from the past were posted with comments suggesting she would do sexual things. It turned out that the perpetrators were among her group of friends, and one of them was a boy she did not want to go out with.
Vassallo said the majority of child abuse reports involved images or videos posted by young people themselves that would have then been leaked. There were also cases of photos posted by parents and caregivers, for example, of a baby during bath time with their private parts exposed.
It’s very scary. There is a business on the dark web of photos of children being sold. We need people to report. We then work with our counterparts in other countries to stop them and save these children
Project coordinator Deborah Vassallo: "Financial sextortion of young boys is increasing globally and locally."
Cyberbullying remains high
A social worker by profession, Vassallo has been part of the BeSmartOnline project since it was launched 13 years ago. It is implemented through a consortium coordinated by the Foundation for Social Welfare Services and brings together the Commissioner for Children, the Directorate for Learning and Assessment Programmes and the police’s Cyber Crime Unit. BeSmartOnline is part of the Insafe network of Safer Internet Centres (SICs).
Over the years, the reports for both services have been on the increase. The reports received by the online abuse support line increased from 505 in 2020 to 691 in 2021, and 730 in 2022. So far, there have been 445 reports in 2023.
Number of reports made to the online abuse helpline 179. Source: BeSmartOnline
Number of reports made to the child abuse hotline. Source: BeSmartOnline
Speaking about the child abuse hotline, Vassallo said the numbers were also on the increase. They increased from 885 in 2020, dropping to 353 in 2021 and increasing to 846 in 2022. In 2023, 1,776 reports of illicit behaviour were received.
The sharp increase in 2023 is because a person would have reported one illegal forum that leads to multiple websites being investigated – each as individual reports, she said.
Vassallo stressed that reports were anonymous as the priority was not to get to the bottom of how the person came across the illegal material but to stop the abuse first.
This article was originally published in the Times of Malta and has been adapted and republished here with the permission of the Maltese Safer Internet Centre.
Find out more about the work of the Maltese Safer Internet Centre, including its awareness raising, helpline, hotline and youth participation services – or find similar information for Safer Internet Centres throughout Europe.