Philippine police, backed by Interpol, have arrested dozens of suspected members of an online extortion syndicate who duped hundreds of victims worldwide into exposing themselves in front of webcams, including a Scottish teenager who committed suicide after being blackmailed, officials said Friday.
"The scale of this extortion network is massive," said Sanjay Virmani, director of the Interpol Digital Crime Center based in Singapore. "These crimes are not limited to any one country and nor are the victims. That's why international cooperation in investigating these crimes is essential."
At least 58 Filipino suspects in the capital, Manila, and other cities were arrested recently after investigators from Interpol, the U.S. Homeland Security Department and other police agencies traced online chats from some of the victims' computers, said Philippine National Police chief Allan Purisima.
It was not immediately clear whether all 58 arrested were Filipinos, although authorities initially made no mention of any foreigners who may have been directly involved in the Philippines. Authorities emphasised the Philippines was not the hub of the global sextortion network, only that the current investigation had focused on the Southeast Asian nation.
Purisima said the syndicate would secretly record the victims after tricking them into exposing their bodies or having cybersex, and later threaten to send the video to their relatives and friends unless they paid, usually from $500 to $2,000.
He said members of the "sextortion" group would create fake Facebook accounts of fictitious young and attractive women and entice and lure victims with pornographic materials after striking up online chats with them.
"After getting acquainted with the victims... they engage in cybersex, and this will be recorded unknown to the victims," Purisima said. "They then threaten to release it to friends and relatives."
While Purisima said elderly men were often targeted, children were also victims.
Hong Kong police Inspector Louis Kwan Chung-yin said more than 470 people from Hong Kong were victimized last year and about 160 so far this year.
In one case, a victim paid the equivalent of $15,000, he said, adding that the victims were of various ages.
Virmani said the victims were from the Asia, Europe and the United States. He said that the extortionist had been tracked down using evidence from computers and intelligence information from police.
Scotland's police officer Gary Cunningham said he was representing the 17-year-old boy's family in tracking down those responsible for leading for his death last year. He said the family was "extremely supportive ... in bringing to justice to individuals out there who have fallen victims to these crimes."
Senior Superintendent Gilbert Sosa, chief of the Philippine National Police Anti-Cybercrime Group, said he could not specify the amounts extorted from the victims but said they ran into millions of pesos, or tens of thousands of dollars.