Monday 5 December 2016

Webcam blackmail: Organised crime gangs targeting vulnerable internet users in Ireland

Computer forensics investigator Andrew Harbison says 'exceptionally persuasive' blackmail tactics are used

Cathal McMahon, Brian O'Reilly and Denise Calnan

Published 30/03/2016 | 09:09

Stock Image/Bloomberg
Stock Image/Bloomberg

Organised crime gangs are targeting vulnerable internet users in Ireland with "exceptionally persuasive" webcam blackmail tactics, a leading computer forensics investigator has said.

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People are persuaded into taking part in sexually suggestive webcam activities, before they are blackmailed into handing over cash to prevent the recording going public.

Experienced computer forensics investigator Andrew Harbison advised anybody who feels under threat to contact the gardai so they can piece together a pattern and target the criminal gangs.

His advice comes following the tragic story of a mother who claims her husband took his own life after he was blackmailed using a compromising online video.

The woman - who has asked not to be named to protect her children - called on gardaí to track down the scammers who she claims extorted €1,000 from her husband before his suicide.

She has also pleaded with others to be careful online, after a graphic video of the man was posted on Facebook.

"It's absolutely horrendous. My kids are devastated," she told Independent.ie.

"It is all the questions, they just can't understand how he was there one day and he wasn't there the next. I haven't told them the exact extent of what happened because I don't want them to know that."

Speaking anonymously, she explained that her husband had suffered from depression and anxiety over the last number of years but was still an "excellent father".

Speaking to Newstalk's Breakfast, investigator Andrew Harbison said the gangs use persuasive tactics to "turn screws on the target".

"This is called webmail blackmail and it's been around for about five years now. It started off so like many of these online scams with just one person acting. Now, unfortunately, organised crime got into it," Mr Harbison said.

"For the bad guy, this man was the perfect target, he seemed to be a social media novice and he seemed vulnerable.

"These guys get to know the target and the better you know your target, the better.

"The claim about the children is a standard tactic. You see that being used a lot. It is something to turn the screws on the target."

Mr Harbison said the main advice is "don't do it" but said if people do find themselves in a threatening situation, they need to contact gardai.

"If you are threatened and blackmailed and you're worried about your wider family seeing a photo or a video of you, go to the police," he said.

"If enough people let the gardai know what's going on, they can put together a pattern and find out who's doing it.

"It takes a lot to shock a guard. It's nothing they haven't seen before. They will understand. Con artists can be exceptionally persuasive.

"When you tell the guards, you will make sure other people haven't been affected by this," he continued.

"It is a big trauma. These people may need counselling and may need help. These con artists do target the vulnerable."

Mr Harbison also said it is important for people to remember that they have the 'Right to be Forgotten' with Google and Facebook.

"You can ask Facebook and Google to take this down. Don't forget a little legal advice is very useful too," he added.

Andrew Harbison is the most experienced computer forensics investigator in private practice in Ireland. He has completed in excess of 350 separate computer investigations.

Meanwhile, a garda investigation has been launched into the events which involved the man in the east of the country earlier this year.

The man's phone has been passed on to the Garda Computer Crime Investigation Unit (CCIU) and officers are due to interview his wife.

Last June, the family of 17-year-old schoolboy Ronan Hughes revealed that he took his own life after he was subjected to a similar blackmail plot.

And in January, the Irish Independent reported how a gang attempted to extort €10,000 from a young Cork man after an Eastern European woman sent him a video of him viewing her naked and performing sex acts on camera.

If you need someone to talk to, contact Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org

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