The charity said it believes the reports are a fraction of the true number of sextortion cases.
Cases of sextortion reported to the UK’s revenge porn helpline have almost doubled within a year, becoming its main issue for the first time, figures show.
Sextortion was the helpline’s most reported issue in 2021, with 1,124 cases reported – up from 593 in 2020.
The total number of reports from victims of intimate image abuse to the helpline increased by 40% from 3,146 to 4,406 last year, according to figures shared with the PA news agency.
They now stand at more than six times the number reported in 2016.
The Revenge Porn Helpline charity said it believes the reports are a fraction of the true number of sextortion cases, as there is a “huge amount of shame” around falling prey to scammers.
Sextortion occurs when images or videos are captured or sent during an online sexual exchange, and the victim is extorted and blackmailed for their intimate content.
Scammers – usually overseas organised crime groups – take details of the victim’s followers, friends, and family contacts and attempt to make some quick cash by threatening to share the images or videos.
Sextortion made up a quarter of the overall cases reported to the helpline last year, and 88% of sextortion cases involved male victims.
In 80% of the cases the perpetrator was a criminal gang, while 11% involved a current or former partner.
The helpline said the threats “are very real, but the content is rarely released”.
Helpline practitioner Zara Roddis said numbers have “exploded” in recent years, with scammers becoming more aggressive during the pandemic and greater awareness leading to more people coming forward to report the crime.
Scammers will use any tactic they can to extort money, she said, such as calling victims paedophiles, which is “incredibly terrifying”.
Callers are advised not to engage with, or pay, the person sextorting them, but to block them.
Ms Roddis told PA: “We see… people who are in happy, committed relationships, people who are going through break-ups, people who are single, people who are exploring their sexuality, people who are gay and haven’t come out yet.
“We see everybody from every walk of life, through every experience, be affected by this, and it doesn’t discriminate. I think the scammers look for somebody’s weak spot, and they dig into it.”
One victim, who called the helpline his “saviour”, started chatting with a Facebook account that appeared to belong to a woman with whom he shared several mutual friends.
He thought he could trust the person and accepted a video call request, but then a compromising video was recorded without his knowledge.
He said: “They demanded I give them money for their ‘sick son’ or they would leak the video to everyone on my Facebook friends list – even going as far as finding my mum’s Facebook profile and making a group chat with her in.
“I was so stressed and panicked that I ended up giving them £200 so that they would delete the video, but that didn’t stop them from asking for more money, and from then I realised they would not stop asking me for money so I took screenshots for the police and blocked them on my account, my mum’s account, then deactivated my Facebook.”
Of the reports the helpline received last year, 979 were from people whose intimate images had been shared – 79% of whom were women.
Most people were alerted to the image being shared by someone they know such as a friend or family member.
But the suspected perpetrator was the second most common “alerter”, which the helpline said is expected given the crime “has many ties towards elements of control and humiliation which is often orchestrated by the perpetrator”.
A quarter of cases involved the victim being “cold messaged” about the content, usually accompanied by “sexual advances and/or humiliation”.
In 2015 it became a crime to share private sexual images and films of a person without their consent and with the intent to cause distress.
Ms Roddis said the current law has left “thousands of people unsupported and unvalidated” because they need to show the material was shared with an intent to cause distress, which she said is “heartbreaking”.
Earlier this year the Law Commission put forward proposals which would scrap the need to prove an intent to cause distress in order to prosecute cases.
The Revenge Porn Helpline figures show that 65% of victims who made reports to the police said they had received a negative response.
A recent investigation by news organisation Radar found that more than a third of revenge porn cases are dropped by victims despite a suspect being identified, with reasons cited including a lack of anonymity and trust in police.
A National Police Chiefs’ Council spokesman said groups carrying out sextortion have become “increasingly sophisticated in their operations over the past decade”.
He said: “These crimes can have devastating consequences for victims, especially young men, who make up the majority of those affected.
“We work closely with the National Crime Agency and foreign law enforcement agencies to tackle these groups wherever possible.”
Victims should not pay money, as this often leads to continued targeting, but should report to police who will investigate “sensitively” and provide continued support, he added.
A Government spokesperson said: “More than 900 abusers have been convicted since ‘revenge porn’ was outlawed, and to further protect victims we recently widened the offence to criminalise anyone who threatens to disclose intimate images.
“But we are doing even more to protect women and girls from sexual abuse – overhauling our entire response to rape, boosting funding for support services to £185 million a year and introducing the first ever Victims’ Bill as we restore faith in the justice system”