I was tricked into sending a topless photo to a paedophile at 13, who blackmailed me then abused me in my bedroom. Rhiannon tells her shocking story on the rise of ‘sextortion’ – and the horrifying new tactics of the internet’s worst predators

I was tricked into sending a topless photo to a paedophile at 13, who blackmailed me then abused me in my bedroom. Rhiannon tells her shocking story on the rise of ‘sextortion’ – and the horrifying new tactics of the internet’s worst predators

It took less than 24 hours for a paedophile to groom 13-year-old Rhiannon McDonald online and then sexually assault her in her own bedroom.

‘I was tricked and manipulated into sending one topless picture to a person I thought was a woman,’ she says.

‘But as soon as I sent it, the nice “woman” became a very nasty man and threatened to put my picture all over the internet unless I did whatever he said — and that included giving him my home address. I was only a child, and I was terrified.’

Rhiannon, now 34, was an early victim of internet ‘sextortion’, where someone sets up a fake identity to trick, scam or exploit an innocent user into sending explicit photos of themselves.

He blackmailed the teen into giving him her home address, then abused her in her bedroom

The psychological effect on those blackmailed can be profound, as the parents of Murray Dowey from Dunblane tragically found when the 16-year-old took his own life last December.

He had been tricked into sending compromising pictures of himself to a criminal gang posing as a girl on Instragram.

On Thursday, Meta, the owner of the social media site, agreed to provide Police Scotland with information on Murray’s account, which could help track his blackmailers, after his mother Ros complained that, despite a court order, Meta had yet to do so.

In April, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which monitors the internet for child sexual abuse, reported growing numbers of youngsters being tricked into sending explicit pictures of themselves — including many aged under six.

The IWF’s searches, often triggered by tip-offs to a hotline on its website, turned up over 275,000 webpages containing images of child sexual abuse in 2023 — up 8 per cent on the year before.

Of those, 62,000 webpages were designated ‘Category A’ — containing images or videos of full sex, bestiality or sadism involving children — representing a 22 per cent rise on the previous year.

The IWF says 15 per cent of these images and videos involved victims who had been groomed or coerced online.

‘The threat facing children is now in their own homes, even their own bedrooms — and the victims are getting younger and younger,’ says Susie Hargreaves, chief executive of the IWF.

‘This shows just how opportunistic internet predators are. The abuse is often recorded without the child’s knowledge, and it quickly makes its way online, on to dedicated child sexual-abuse sites.’

Rhiannon, who is now head of advocacy at the Marie Collins Foundation, which campaigns against ‘technology-assisted child sexual abuse’, became a victim after being introduced by a friend to a ‘woman’ in an online chat room.

At the time, the chat was happening over AOL Instant Messenger and MSN Messenger. While these are now defunct, apps such as Snapchat, TikTok, WhatsApp and Facebook, and some video gaming platforms such as Xbox and PlayStation, provide similar opportunities for paedophiles to communicate with children today.

‘It was a very normal conversation at first,’ says Rhiannon. ‘Who are you? Where do you live? How old are you? What are your hobbies?’

To prove her identity, Rhiannon sent a photo of herself to her ‘friend’ who sent one in return, which she later realised had been stolen from elsewhere online.

‘She claimed she was a model, then complimented me, saying I was really pretty, I was beautiful, and I could be a model just like her.

‘When you’re a 13-year-old, it feels nice to be told things like that. You’re happy to go along with it to an extent.

‘And then later in the conversation, she said she did topless modelling. You get more work, you get paid more money if you go topless, she said.

Rhiannon, 34, is now head of advocacy at the Marie Collins Foundation, which campaigns against 'technology-assisted child sexual abuse'

‘She asked me to send a topless photo. I immediately said no because I felt it was dirty and seedy. It just felt wrong and I didn’t want to do it.

‘But she convinced me it was normal. It’s what everybody’s doing. You’re just exploring your body, your sexuality, you’re growing up now. You only have to look at [a red-top newspaper’s] page three and you will see topless women — that’s how normal it was.’

Rhiannon says having a computer screen between her and the ‘woman’ felt like a filter, allowing her a false sense of security. If the person had been talking to her in the flesh, she’d have ended the conversation.

‘It didn’t feel like real life,’ she says. ‘Nothing’s ever going to come of it, I thought.’

So, with her inhibitions lowered, she sent that one topless photo.

‘And that was the turning point. It was no longer nice, happy conversation and compliments. It was threats and blackmail — “she” flipped immediately. It was a case of “I’ve got what I need now. You’re under my control”.’

Under threat of exposure, Rhiannon gave her groomer — a man in his fifties — her home address and more pictures. He turned up the next morning when her parents were out, took her into her bedroom and sexually assaulted her.

‘It was absolutely terrifying,’ she says. ‘I felt like I was backed into a corner and had nowhere to run. I’ve never been so scared in my life as in that moment.’

Rhiannon says she blamed herself because in some way she felt complicit. The extent to which her 13-year-old self had been groomed, cleverly manipulated and then blackmailed by an unscrupulous adult hadn’t occurred to her.

‘I felt dirty emotionally,’ she says. ‘I knew that I was never going to tell anybody about it. I was so embarrassed and ashamed.

‘If I reported it to the police, they would blame me, and I would be in trouble for wasting their time because I’d asked for this. I’d engaged in the conversation, I’d sent the images, I’d given my address, I’d opened the door to this man.’

Six months later, however, the police came to Rhiannon. They had been investigating the man for another sexual offence, and they came upon her details on his computer.

He was later sentenced to 13 years in prison, seven of which were for what he did to Rhiannon.

She has asked the Mail not to name him so as to prevent his other victims being reminded of the abuse they suffered at his hands.

Rhiannon said she blamed herself. When she was 13 it hadn't occurred to her that she had been groomed, manipulated and then blackmailed

Her abuser was sentenced to 13 years in prison, seven of which were for what he did to Rhiannon

‘It took nine years for me to get therapy and I can still remember the first thing I said to my therapist,’ says Rhiannon. ‘I’ve had this black cloud over me for the last decade and he’s probably already out of prison and yet I’m still suffering. For his victims, it’s a life sentence.’

The Online Safety Act, introduced last October, obliges tech and social media companies to protect children from online harms such as bullying and revenge pornography, and images of terrorism or self-harming.

Where images of child abuse are posted, they are supposed to be swiftly removed. Companies in breach of the Act face fines of up to 10 per cent of their global revenue — which could amount to billions of pounds. Company bosses could even face jail sentences of up to two years.

However, campaigners say that the tech giants aren’t improving children’s security quickly enough — a charge they deny. Some also argue that the Act is unlikely to significantly reduce children’s vulnerability to predators because online grooming was already illegal — yet paedophiles were not deterred.

It certainly didn’t stop Alexander McCartney, 25, a habitual sextortionist from Northern Ireland, who in March pleaded guilty to manslaughter after a 12-year-old girl, whom he had groomed and blackmailed, killed herself.

McCartney is thought to have had more than 60 child victims in several countries. He has not yet been sentenced.

‘For parents, the important thing is to understand that it’s never the child’s fault and that we’re talking about highly skilled, organised and manipulative predators here,’ says Victoria Green, CEO of the Marie Collins Foundation.

She urges parents to talk to their children who are often too embarrassed to admit they are being blackmailed, otherwise perpetrators use that silence to further control their victims.

‘Let children know that if they do fall into this trap,’ says Green ‘they can tell you and you won’t judge them because it’s never their fault.’

Twelve-year-old Danielle was one such victim who was too frightened to confide in her parents.

She had been tricked into sharing Category A images and films over Snapchat with a person she thought was a 14-year-old schoolboy. In fact, her correspondent was a man in Philadelphia.

Her mother, Mary White (not her real name), says: ‘We had been concerned about a change in Danielle’s behaviour since the previous summer but we didn’t know what the cause was.

‘She had always been a happy, studious, outgoing girl, but by the end of Year 7 she had become more challenging and she’d get angry more easily.

Rhiannon said that what her abuser did was a life sentence for the victims, while 'he's probably already out of prison'

‘It started off fairly low initially, then she began getting into trouble at school, and by the time we got to Christmas of Year 8, she’d been suspended several times.’

Mary found out what Danielle had been going through when she was called by her daughter’s school safeguarding team in March 2022.

Another girl at the school had managed to access Danielle’s Snapchat account two months earlier and had been copying and sharing explicit images with other pupils.

Mary says Danielle was initially treated as a ‘suspect’ because she had ‘self-generated’ the images and shared them. It is illegal to make and share sexual images of a child, but the law was never intended to deal with situations like hers.

Eventually, after the involvement of the Marie Collins Foundation, Danielle’s description as a suspect was removed from police files.

‘Danielle says it began with flattery,’ says Mary. ‘I think because she was 12 and had just started high school during the pandemic, she was quite insecure, and friendship groups weren’t there. Then this person paid her some attention.

‘The first photo she shared was just a bit of cleavage but the groomer then used that as a way of manipulating her — “I know where you live, I know your friends, your family. I can easily share this on a platform”. This is blackmail.

‘He was coercing and manipulative and Danielle felt trapped. Her “fight or flight” response turned to fight, and that’s why she had become so angry.’

Last month, to Mary’s relief, police in the US arrested a suspect in connection with Danielle’s case.

‘I’ve had people asking what a 12-year-old was doing with a smartphone, but they’re asking the wrong question,’ says Mary. ‘Technology can be very positive in a child’s development, so the answer isn’t to take the technology away from the child — it is to make the technology, the internet, safe for the child.

‘For the Online Safety Act to be effective and for the tech companies to be held to account, we need public momentum behind it saying, “This is what we want — do it”.’

As for Danielle, the spectre of those images still haunts her, especially after they were rumoured to be in circulation again. It proved to be a false alarm.

Mary says her daughter has had counselling and felt comfortable enough to post about her experience on Instagram.

Hers is a disturbing story and one that is becoming increasingly common as children find themselves adrift in an online world with little between them and the internet’s worst predators.

How to keep your kids safe…

The Internet Watch Foundation has the following advice for parents to help keep their children safe online:

  • Talk to your child about online sexual abuse. Start the conversation — and listen to their concerns.
  • Agree ground rules about the way you use technology as a family.
  • Learn about the platforms and apps your child loves. Take an interest in their online life.
  • Know how to use tools, apps and settings that can help to keep your child safe online.

More advice for parents can be found at Marie Collins Foundation

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Steve Boggan

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