On a day synonymous with hearts and flowers, detectives are urging the public to get wise to the amorous advances of online fraudsters.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland has chosen Valentine’s Day to kick-start a campaign that, over the coming weeks, will ask local people to be on their guard against heartless scammers.

The warning comes in response to increasing reports of online blackmail of an intimate or sexual nature. This blackmail is commonly known as ‘sextortion’.

Detective Chief Inspector David McBurney said: “Typically, a person uses a false identity to befriend a victim via social media. The exchange may start with flirting and flattery, but ends with the victim coaxed into sending intimate images or performing sexual acts online, unwittingly in front of a camera.

“Behind the fake and attractive persona, there’s a criminal. These people are often part of sophisticated and organised crime groups, mostly based overseas. They extort their victims by threatening to share those images or recordings unless demands for money are met.

“Innocent people are left feeling humiliated and distressed; but the important message is that help is available.”

In 2021, the Police Service of Northern Ireland received an average of between 35 and 40 reports of sextortion per month.

Overwhelmingly, 94% of the overall reports were from males. The most targeted group was men aged 18 to 29, who accounted for approximately 48% of the total reported incidents.

Detective Chief Inspector McBurney continued: “My message, in the first instance, is simply to be on your guard. Please be aware of the risks of sharing intimate images online; and if someone is pushing you to do this, then alarm bells should be ringing.

“But no one is invincible, and if you’ve been a victim of sextortion, then you’re certainly not alone. Don’t panic; don’t respond to demands; and don’t enter into further communication. If you can, confide in a trusted friend or family member; and please contact officers immediately on 101.”

The Police Service has issued online safety advice, which includes:

Don’t get lured or pushed into compromising situations. Trust your gut, and end uncomfortable situations immediately.

Always remember that what goes online may well stay online.

Be wary about whom you invite or accept invitations from on social networking sites. Do not accept friendship requests from complete 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.

Get more information about sextortion

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