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London - Britain's online child protection agency sounded the alarm Friday over paedophiles' use of blackmail to force their victims into handing over sexually explicit images, money, or performing sex acts live via webcam.
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center said that 184 children in the United Kingdom had been subjected to some form of online sexual blackmail over the past two years. The agency said that six shame-stricken children subsequently seriously harmed themselves or tried to take their own lives as a result. One committed suicide.
“These offenders are cowards,” Andy Baker, the deputy chief executive at the agency, said in a statement. “They hide behind a screen, and in many cases make hollow threats which they know they will never act on because by sharing these images will only bring the police closer to them.”
An agency spokeswoman identified the suicide as 17-year-old Daniel Perry from Scotland, who killed himself in July after he was tricked into thinking he was chatting with a girl around his own age. The BBC said that he took his own life after being warned that his video conversations would be circulated to his friends and family if he didn't pay up.
The practice of using cameras - fastened to many a child's personal computer or integrated into their smartphones - to solicit abusive photos and video is not new, although the agency's disclosure put a rare face to the abuse.
Online blackmail “is a continuation of what was already happening for a long time in the terrestrial world,” said Laura Huey, a cyberpolicing expert at the University of Western Ontario who wasn't involved with the agency's research.
Huey said in an email that she had recently been interviewing adult victims of sexual abuse - all of them predating the rise of the Internet - and said that in their experiences blackmail was a “recurring theme.”
Asked how realistic the agency's figures were, she said, “there's no way of telling.”
“This is an especially dark area because sexual offenses go unreported because victims don't report. They're intimidated for a variety of reasons. They feel ashamed and scared, and, particularly with young children, they may not fully understand the nature of their exploitation,” she said.