'They killed our son': Online scammers tearing families apart as sextortion cases soar

Mark and Ros Dowey said their 'world has been shattered' since losing their son to suicide in December 2023, as Digital Producer Sam Leader reports

When Murray Dowey left his parents watching television downstairs to go up to his bedroom he was a happy sixteen-year-old boy.

Just hours later, Murray had taken his own life, having become the latest victim of a surge of sextortion cases in the UK.

Murray, 16, from Dunblane was contacted on social media by someone claiming to be a young girl but was actually a scammer, who tricked him into sending an intimate image and then blackmailed him with it.

Speaking for the first time about their son's case, Murray's parents told ITV News their "whole world has been shattered".

At Murray's local football club, Stirling Albion, where he spent every weekend with his friends, Mark and Ros Dowey said they "don't want this to happen to any other family" and called on social media platforms to up the safeguarding for teenagers "immediately".

They share their story as ITV News are given exclusive stats that reveal the UK's only helpline dedicated to helping victims of intimate image abuse received 54% more sextortion reports in 2023, than the previous year.

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.

Reports to The Revenge Porn Helpline doubled 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 cases were reported by men.

'The next thing I heard was Ros screaming, screams like I've never heard in my life before'

Murray had been enjoying festive celebrations last year with his parents and his two brothers, before going up to his room as normal, but his family "never for a minute thought that was the last time [they] were going to see him."

Mark and Ros Dowey said there 'world has been shattered' since losing their son

Ros Dowey, Murray's mother, said: "That evening we were just chatting and watching rubbish on telly... We were just a normal family of five.

"To the next morning, we're down to four people with a huge Murray-shaped gap that's never going to go away.

"He's my little boy. To think of my little boy in such distress and not to reach out for help, it's awful."

Murray took his own life on December 30, 2023, just hours after he was blackmailed by a scammer.

Mark Dowey, Murray's father, said he was "sitting watching the football, next thing I heard was Ros screaming, screams like I've never heard in my life before... it was horrendous."

"He was a very normal, easygoing, helpful boy, had a great sense of humour... I can't believe he's gone.

"One of the reasons it is so devastating as it comes into your house, exactly where Murray should have been safest in his room, asleep. So there's very little you can do to protect them."

'We thought we were dealing with suicide... [it was] absolute torture'

For two weeks, before police confirmed that Murray had been a victim of sextortion, Mark and Ros were left questioning everything they knew about their son's mental wellbeing.

Ros told us: "He was a normal, happy teenager... he had plans. He had everything to look forward to... he was talking about saving up for a summer holiday with his friends.

Murray was a season ticket holder at his local club Stirling Albion Credit: Family handout

"The panic and terror he must have been in for however long this went on, whether it was minutes or hours, I'm devastated for him, that he was just obviously in such a state that he thought taking his life was the only thing he could do.

"We'd had lots of conversations with our boys about online safety [and] social media... you'd never, ever imagine it's going to hit you because you're just a 'normal family' and these things don't happen."Mark said: "We thought we were dealing with suicide... [it was] absolute torture... indeed he did take his own life but he was very much taken to that point by these criminals."

"As parents, were very good at telling kids what not to do, but maybe not so good at telling them what to do if they do do it.

"I think that's something we really need to take away from this, that you need to give them that information, that if they do step over that line, don't panic. Don't do what Murray did."

'I just think they're evil...those criminals killed our son.'

Police Scotland are working with authorities in Nigeria to find the perpetrator responsible and to get justice for Murray.

Sextortion scams can be perpetrated by individuals but the majority are committed by organised crime groups operating overseas, who often target young men with fake images, before blackmailing them for money.

Murray's parents, Mark and Ros, stand next to his seat at Stirling Albion FC

Ros Dowey said: "I just think they're evil...those criminals killed our son. they can't just be anonymous people behind the keyboard thousands of miles away.

"There has to be consequences and there has to be consequences to deter others from doing this."

Mark said: "That demographic has been chosen very specifically by these criminals for their vulnerability to this crime."

In a statement to ITV News, Superintendent Joanne McEwan, from Police Scotland’s Partnerships, Prevention and Community Wellbeing Department said: "We are experiencing an increase in the number of sextortion incidents being reported and organised crime gangs based overseas are often responsible, although individuals are also involved.

"People shouldn’t panic, there is support available from policing and from third party organisations. We encourage victims to come forward. They will be treated with respect and dignity and the circumstances investigated professionally."

'It just breaks your heart that that's what his last moments on earth were... just that terror'

Not only do Murray's family now face a battle to get justice for their son, they want to put pressure on social media platforms to do more for young peoples safety, and ensure no other family loses a child under these circumstances.

Mark Dowey said: "I think the the platforms that these criminals are using need to up the safeguarding, up the protection for young people immediately. I think they know exactly how they could do that. It's been mooted by many an expert, but nothing's been done about it.

"We're starting to see a lot of young people dying through this crime."

Mark added: "I would very much like to say to young people if this is happening to you, that is your absolute route out of it, just switch the phone off and walk away from it. Get help. Go and get help."

Ros Dowey said: "There's all sorts of technologies they can be using because these criminals have a real pattern of behaviour... But I also think the [social media] platforms need to make it easier for children to report a scam and then they act on it really quickly.

"More needs to be done in schools and other forms of education to raise awareness to young people that that this can happen and this is what you do when this happens...

"And for parents to be aware of it and to not sit there and think it's some abstract thing that couldn't happen, you know, it can happen to anybody."

Murray's parents described him as the 'peacemaker' and the 'glue' between his two brothers Credit: Family Handout

Ros now wants other young people to know that if they do become a victim to sextortion, that "nothing is that bad, that it's worth taking your own life".

She added: Murray "hated being the centre of attention, so the thought that they were going to share this with all his contacts would have felt like the end of his world, but it wouldn't have been.

"We'd have gotten over it. We'd have helped him through it... rather than what we have now which is no Murray, and we have to live with that for the rest of our lives."

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

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).