Helpline sees massive surge in sextortion victims with students often the target for scammers


New figures released to ITV News expose an alarming rise in victims of sextortion, as exclusive stats obtained from the Revenge Porn Helpline reveal reports have risen by 54% in just one year, often leaving victims in sheer terror.

Sextortion, is when intimate images and/or videos are recorded and used for financial exploitation and coercion; It is mostly committed by organised criminal gangs overseas.

The Revenge Porn Helpline, which is the UK's only service dedicated to supporting victims of intimate image abuse, received double the amount of reports last year reaching nearly 19,000, but sextortion made up over a third of those reports, and is the main form of intimate image abuse reported to the helpline - 93% of those reports were from men.

The helpline reveal the harm scammers are inflicting on their victims, detailing how they frequently hear from university students who are sending thousands of pounds of their student loans to these predators.

ITV News visited the helpline's call centre, where we witnessed first hand the day-to-day assistance the helpline practitioners offer to terrified victims of sextortion, with one distressed caller seeking help after their intimate images posted into a group chat with his friends and family.

The true impact of this crime by the case of Murray Dowey, a sixteen-year-old who took his own life hours after becoming a victim of sextortion. As part of our investigation Murray's family spoke for the first time saying something needs to be done 'immediately'.

At the centre we spoke to helpline practitioners who deal with cases like Murray's every day.Izzy Petherick, a Revenge Porn Helpline Practitioner; had just come off the phone with a victim of sextortion shortly after we arrived.

Revenge Porn Helpline Practitioner, Izzy Petherick, takes a call from a sextortion victim

The caller had met a girl online and partook in an intimate call, but that 'girl' turned out to be a scammer who began asking for money.

Petherick said; "Very quickly they switch and these kind of horrible threats will come in, he'd been receiving the threats for a few days.

"They then added all of his kind of friends and family into a big group chat. They had actually shared the content into the group chat, which just obviously kind of adds a whole other layer to things."

Although this victim did not send any money, some victims do, sending thousands of pounds to their sextortioners as the threats continue to be more menacing.

Petherick added; "Often university students we'll speak to who sometime are quite isolated from their family, living away from home. Sometimes people have kind of sent a lot of this sort of university in that kind of left with very little money.

"We hear of that relatively often... Sometimes it can be thousands of pounds, unfortunately. But our advice always remains the same, just don't send any more money. It's never too late to stop."

Many sextortion victims feel like they've done something wrong by sharing intimate images, and feel embarrassed and ashamed when they realise the person they were speaking to online was not who they had originally thought.

But practitioners at the helpline insist that there's no reason why somebody would doubt that the contact at the other end of the phone wasn't a real person.

Amanda Dashwood, a Revenge Porn Helpline Practitioner, said; "They're very skilled, they're very good at forming a connection... then when they have that content, they then start bombarding [victims] with these quite terrifying messages."

"The last call I took, the person was very very distressed. It had just happened, he’s an international student, he thought that he might have done something wrong, by sharing those images in the first place.

"It was difficult because I could hear how distressed he was, and I could hear he was a long way from home.

“It’s just going up and up, sextortion is really really increasing, the types of tactics that the perpetrators use, are always changing, so we kind of need to be really on the ball with the trends."

Revenge Porn Helpline's Amanda Dashwood explains what to do if you are a victim of sextortion

Many of these sextortion cases are perpetrated by scammers operating overseas who have operated for a number of years on various different online scams, but are now targeting young men across the world and blackmailing thousands of pounds from their victims.

ITV News found dozens of videos, linked to scammers operating overseas, sharing how-to guides on blackmailing, linked across YouTube, Instagram and TikTok sharing detailed methods of how to sextort someone – some with hundreds of thousands of views.

We were even able to infiltrate one chat – where we were met with detailed blackmailing scripts – one said 'I will make your life so miserable' - 'I’m posting your nude, I’m going to make you die in pain'.

ITV News found detailed blackmailing scripts and scammers advertising on social media platforms

Chris, a former scammer, now whistleblower who is remaining anonymous for his safety, said; "People make millions and millions of dollars. So everyone wants to make that kind of money, too."

Chris now works with the company Social Catfish, a company dedicated to preventing online scams through reverse search technology.

Chris, a reformed scammer, said perpetrators 'don't care' about the damage to their victims

When we asked Chris if these scammers knew the damage they were doing to their victims, he replied; "Yeah, they actually realise the damage they're doing but they don't care, they just want to make money.

"They don't care if they are killing people, they don't care about the result, or what comes after, they just want to make money."

Sophie Mortimer, Revenge Porn Helpline Manager said; "It's a huge problem and I'd say that it's getting worse... I think there's a lot of concern that it can really implode somebody's life.

"We do have people who describe themselves as suicidal or considering self-harm because the shame they feel is just too much.

"Unfortunately, we see a lot of people that do pay, and I think that that's quite seductive because, of course, they're being told that if they pay a relatively small amount of money, the images will be deleted and the scammer will go away.

"Our understanding is that that these scammers are working from almost like call centers. These are businesses. There's no point in them hanging around with somebody who isn't going to pay that, just move on to the next person.

"There is help available and they want reassurance we can offer that it is unusual for content to be shared of somebody afterwards because it's all about the money.

"We'll explain the usual pattern of these sorts of scams and encourage people to calm down, just to take a step back from the situation."

Sophie Mortimer, Revenge Porn Helpline Manager explains the motivation behind sextortioners

Meta and TikTok did not directly comment on our reports but say they do not tolerate sextortion or any kind of abuse on their platforms.

A YouTube spokesperson told ITV News they have removed the account we flagged and said; "We have strict policies against videos that provide instruction for activities such as phishing or cryptophishing and do not allow this content on our platform.

"We vigorously remove this type of content."

How to get help if you have been affected by the issues mentioned in this article:

  • Revenge Porn Helpline - Helpline: 0345 6000 459 (Over 18's)

  • Childline - Helpline: 0800 1111 (Under 19's)

  • CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) - Helpline: 0800 58 58 58

  • MIND provides advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. Information line: 0300 123 3393

  • Samaritans is an organisation offering confidential support for people experiencing feelings of distress or despair. Phone 116 123 (a free 24 hour helpline)