Family of schoolboy (17) who took own life after 'cyber blackmail' start online campaign in his memory
The family of a Co Tyrone schoolboy who took his own life after being targeted by online criminals is planning to start a campaign in his memory.
Ronan Hughes is believed to have fallen victim to an elaborate blackmail plot involving the social networking site Facebook.
The 17-year-old killed himself last Friday in a tragedy that has brought calls for greater awareness of the dangers posed by the web.
Yesterday an online safety expert said he fears other young people in Northern Ireland could be targeted by the same gang.
The Hughes family hopes Ronan’s death will highlight the risks associated with the internet.
It is understood the family plans to launch a campaign in the coming weeks aimed at preventing a similar tragedy in the future.
More details of the incident which police believe led to Ronan’s death are beginning to emerge.
The principal of a primary school where the teenager volunteered said he had been targeted by fraudsters on a fake Facebook page.
Stephen Magennis from St Joseph’s primary in Galbally said Ronan’s life ended “as a direct result of online cyber-bullying and extortion”.
“Ronan was a victim of ruthless faceless people, intent on first befriending him and luring him into giving personal information and sharing images that were then used to threaten him in an attempt to extort money,” he said.
“This was not anyone from the school or the local area.
“The police are sure this was an international gang of criminals, from a foreign country, who prey on innocent young people throughout the world.
“They had set up a fake Facebook page pretending to be from our country to trick and deceive Ronan.”
Police have confirmed that blackmail is “a definite line of inquiry”.
Jim Gamble, the former head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, said similar scams had been used to target other young people in the UK.
He referred to the high-profile case of Scottish teenager Daniel Perry, who killed himself in 2013 after being blackmailed online.
“My fear is that other children in Northern Ireland are being approached tonight by the same gang which targeted Ronan,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
“It is so important that every parent takes time to have a conversation with their children to warn them of the dangers.
“Sometimes young people can be so confident with technology, they forget about the risks involved.
“Older generations will remember back on the mistakes they made as children.
“Young people will make those same mistakes. Their problem is that mistakes can be captured, digitised and shared.”
On Tuesday a priest at Ronan’s funeral said his life had been taken by “faceless” criminals.
However, Mr Gamble said they were not beyond the law.
“It’s difficult but not impossible,” he added.
“Sometimes a face can be put to these criminals who sit in South-East Asia, Eastern Europe or even closer to home.”
It is understood that Ronan had told his parents and the PSNI of his concerns last week.
However, it was not enough to prevent a tragedy that has deeply shaken the close-knit Clonoe community.
Police have issued advice to other young people following the tragedy.
PSNI superintendent Mike Baird urged anyone who has received inappropriate images or links to contact officers or tell a trusted adult.
“By doing this you will be helping prevent further such incidents,” he said.
Speaking at Ronan’s funeral on Tuesday, parish priest Fr Benny Fee said criminals had taken advantage of his youth and fragility to exploit him and break him.
“He was young, he was beautiful, and had his whole life in front of him,” Fr Fee said.
“But with youth comes its own fragility, and some people took advantage of his beauty and fragility.
“They exploited him and they broke him, and if they could do that to such a sensible fella as Ronan, they could do that to anyone.”
* If you or someone you know is in distress, call Lifeline on 0808 808 8000. This is a confidential service, where trained counsellors will listen and help. The helpline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can access Lifeline at www.lifelinehelpline.info