Overseas “sextortion” gangs are increasingly targeting lonely middle-aged people with an almost four-fold rise in over 40s falling victim to revenge porn, The Telegraph can reveal.
Nearly 2,000 cases affecting this age group were reported to the police over the past six years.
Professional scammers are preying on vulnerable individuals and driving many to resign from their jobs, self-harm and even take their own lives.
Fraudsters, operating in the Philippines, the Ivory Coast and Morocco, are tricking older people into sending intimate images and videos of themselves by posing as potential romantic partners online.
Victims, some as old as 80, are then threatened with having these images uploaded online or sent to their friends, family and employers unless a ransom is paid.
Isolation and loneliness caused by lockdown has fuelled an increase in such cases over the past year with many seeking companionship online, charities have warned.
New data obtained by The Telegraph reveal that cases of revenge porn have risen sharply among older age groups since it first became classified as an offence in April 2015.
Figures obtained through Freedom of Information Requests from 35 out of the 43 police forces across England and Wales show 1,903 reports were brought by people over the age of 40 since 2015.
In 2015, just 107 cases were reported. But by 2020, this number had nearly quadrupled to 390.
London alone saw cases soar from just 11 in 2015 to 60 last year.
Police forces in Manchester, Birmingham, Kent and West Yorkshire reported the highest number of cases compared to the rest of England.
Revenge porn cases since its criminalisation in 2015
But charities have warned these figures are likely to be “the tip of the iceberg” and say as much as 10,000 over 40s are likely to have fallen prey to sextortionists.
Neil Henderson, chief executive of Safeline which provides support to victims of sexual abuse, estimated that only one in six victims report this crime due to the accompanying “embarrassment, shame and humiliation”.
He said: “For our older individuals a lot of it is around financial harm.
“There are a number of people who have told us they have lost their jobs or choose to resign because they can’t face their colleagues.
“For a lot of people that age, there are a lot of suicidal tendencies that come out, a lot of self-harm and a real social rupturing."
The Revenge Porn Helpline, which helps to remove tens of thousands of images of victims uploaded to social media and pornographic websites every year, said it is an uphill battle to remove content as it is shared so rapidly across the internet.
Sophie Mortimer, who runs the helpline, said: “We are more likely to see a certain naivety in older people about when they meet somebody new online and whether that person is who they say they are.
“We have had clients in their 80s, we have seen it all.
“We see a lot of sextortion where that’s predominantly men being contacted by someone they think is a woman but it’s actually an overseas crime gang. They are operating in the Philippines, Ivory Coast and Morocco.”
In the Moroccan town of Oued Zem, up to 3,000 people reportedly earn their living through sexually extorting men online.
Victims, many of whom are Westerners, are tricked into performing sex acts on webcam before blackmailers threaten to send the video to their friends and family on Facebook.
The scammers typically demand ransoms of around £800 (10,000 dirham) to delete the footage.
Campaigners are calling on the Home Office to reclassify revenge porn as a sexual offence, rather than a communication crime, which would grant victims automatic lifelong anonymity.
Professor Clare McGlynn from Durham University, who has helped shape UK laws around upksirting and violent pornography, said the Government has “consistently refused” to make the change, despite anonymity being made available for victims of FGM and forced marriages.
Although sharing intimate images without consent has carried a maximum prison sentence of two years since 2015, it was not until 2021 that the threat to share explicit images became a crime in itself.
The legal change was introduced in March this year in Parliament as one of a raft of amendments to the Government’s upcoming domestic abuse bill.
Sara’s story: Controlled and threatened by an ex
One 48-year-old woman, whose abusive boyfriend threatened to send explicit photos of herself to her family and work colleagues, feared she would suffer “career ruin”.
Sara had begun the relationship In July 2018 yet over the course of eight months her partner’s behaviour became increasingly “coercive and controlling”.
When she attempted to break up with him in May the following year, he revealed he had secretly recorded the pair of them being intimate and promised to destroy her professional life unless she stayed with him.
She tells The Telegraph her story in the clip below.
“He kept saying to me over and over again: ‘I will share this video on your social media feed, you’re connected with lots of people who work for you, it will spread far and wide’.
“It felt to me that if he did do something like that to me, it would possibly be career ruin and I wouldn’t be able to get up and speak out again. I would feel disgraced and ashamed and embarrassed and reviled by myself.
“Of the whole plethora of ways in which I was being controlled or coerced, it was the most frightening of all of them for me to experience.
“I am a 48-year-old, professional, well-respected woman with two children and a family. It’s a very controlling threat to have over somebody. It’s very powerful and very effective.”
Two months later Sara brought her case to the police asking if her partner would just be given a caution.
But despite the warning he did not relent and subjected Sara to a “relentless barrage” of messages over the next five months.
“He would call me 20 to 30 times day and night using no caller ID, email me non stop.
“I would constantly have to block his number. He tried to get his daughter to talk to my son and harassed my friends on Facebook .
“The one thing he still does is call me on key dates like my birthday at 2 or 3am to say ‘I’m still here and won’t forget what has happened.’"
Sara was eventually able to bring her abuser to court after his arrest in October and secured a five-year restraining order with a 12-week imprisonment suspended for 12 months.
He was also banned from contacting Sara over social media or any form of digital platform as well as 15 rehabilitation days, 80 hours of unpaid work and pay victim surcharge costs.