Source: BBC News
What started off as a bit of flirting on Snapchat ended in an ultimatum for Nathan McErlean – either he could pay thousands of pounds or explicit photos of him would be shared on social media.
He became a victim of sextortion, a form of blackmail where people are persuaded to send intimate images of themselves, usually to people online, which criminals then threaten to share.
Nathan decided to speak out to tell others who might find themselves in a similar situation that “it’s not the end of the world”.
“The safest thing to do is just not send it but if you do just keep calm,” said the 25-year-old postman.
“It’s just a body part we all have them – roll with the punches, life gets better.
“It gets forgotten about, there’s no point doing anything drastic over it.”
‘You showed me you’
Nathan, from Magherafelt in County Londonderry, had been on holiday with friends to Santa Ponsa in Spain when he was added on Snapchat by a woman he did not know.
“She messaged me, I checked her Snapchat score and it was pretty high. Usually when you see fake accounts they have low scores,” he said.
“She was replying to the conversation we were having and every snap was different.
“You would have thought you were messaging a real person and not a fake account, there were no red flags.”
He had been exchanging messages with the account for two weeks before he received naked pictures late one night.
“She wanted to see me so I was just like: ‘Fair enough, you showed me you – I’ll do my other half of the dance.'”
Shortly after sending a picture of himself naked he received a reply with screenshot of his image, as well as pictures of his face from the previous days and a list of his Instagram followers.
“She said: ‘I’m going send these to all your followers and ruin your life if you don’t send me £3,000.
“‘But I’ll delete them all if you send me the money.'”
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) advises people not to respond to any such demands.
Last year the PSNI received about 600 reports of sextortion, and it is seeing an increasing number of reports of online blackmail of an intimate or sexual nature, such as the one Nathan faced.
The PSNI’s online safety advice states:
- Do not get lured or pushed into compromising situations and end uncomfortable situations immediately
- Always remember that what goes online may well stay online
- Be wary about who you invite or accept invitations from on social networking sites
- Do not accept friendship requests from strangers
- Update the privacy settings on your social networking accounts so only people you know can view your account
- Do not include any sensitive or private information in profiles
Det Ch Insp David McBurney said: “Behind the fake and attractive guise there’s a criminal. These people are often part of sophisticated and organised crime groups, mostly based overseas.”
In 2016, the PSNI’s cyber crime unit traced the computer used to blackmail County Tyrone schoolboy Ronan Hughes. It belonged to a 31-year-old man in Romania.
Ronan took his own life just hours after some pictures were sent to his friends when he did not pay the ransom.
Nathan also did not pay the ransom facing him – instead he tried to bluff the blackmailer into thinking he did not care if the photos were released.
But then he noticed the blackmailer targeting his Instagram followers.
“When the photos were sent to the Instagram groups I was like: ‘I can’t believe this is actually happening,'” he said.
He took immediate action by making his Instagram private, reporting the pictures and warning his followers not to open them.
He praised Instagram for quickly removing the photos, something he thinks reduced any exposure.
But there were close calls.
“I saw two names that I recognised in the group chat – my sister’s name was there but thankfully it was her old account,” said Nathan.
That was largely the end of it for him – aside from some occasional teasing.
Now, a year after his ordeal, he has spoken out about it to warn others – and reassure them.
“There has been some more awareness but it’s not mentioned that much so I put up a TikTok (about it) because I can talk about it first-hand,” he said.
He was then inundated with other people sharing similar experiences.
“There was this one story of a mum who told me she was sleeping on her son’s bedroom floor because he was in such a bad form over it.
“You do hear people committing suicide over it.”
Sextortion victims are mostly male and aged between 18 and 23, said the PSNI, but detectives also deal with cases involving younger victims.
Det Ch Insp McBurney urged social media users not to get lured into compromising situations.
“Trust your gut and end uncomfortable situations immediately,” he said.
“But people do make mistakes, no-one is infallible and if you’ve been a victim of sextortion then you’re certainly not alone.
“Innocent people are left feeling humiliated and distraught.
“While I appreciate it’s difficult, the important message is not to let embarrassment stop you from reporting what’s happened.”
Nathan’s feelings about his sextorters are clear.
“They’re the lowest of the low.
“To trick people and then to blackmail them for money and not caring who they send it to, it’s absolutely awful – they’re just so emotionless.”
His advice to others is to stay calm and not do “anything drastic”.
“It’s not the end of the world and it’s definitely not worth taking your life over,” he says.
“That’s like a permanent solution for a temporary problem.”