Namibia tackles teen porn syndicate

11 August 2017 | Crime

A landmark police probe into a suspected online pornographic ring targeting young Namibian girls by blackmailing them into supplying a stream of sexually explicit material was launched by the authorities in March this year.

The case revolves around online sexual predators who threatened and bullied young Namibian girls into providing pornographic photos and videos on demand, after the girls were lured through false advertisements for modelling jobs, scholarships or jobs abroad, and money.

Veronica Theron, technical director at the Office of the First Lady, says the office agreed to become a complainant in the case, not only to offer support and guidance to the girls, but also because the case could help shape the way forward to inform policy and to test and strengthen existing systems that deal with cybercrimes.





Theron says the case is complex and Namibian legislation on child protection and cybercrimes is not sufficient to prosecute such cases.

“With this case, we see the need for robust, specific legislation on cybercrime,” Theron says.

According to her the case has also highlighted that coordination between various institutions and experts is vital in tackling cybercrimes.



The complexity of the case is underscored by the nature of online crimes, where perpetrators can easily disguise their identities and vanish when authorities shine a spotlight on them.



While three girls initially approached her office, with the help of a teacher, only two agreed to make official statements to the police, with one family fearing the exposure and backlash.







Deadly cat-and-mouse games







One of the girls told her teacher that she felt “stuck and trapped” and that she didn't know how to get out. She was threatened when she tried to escape the situation.



Theron says all of the girls were in severe emotional turmoil and showed signs of depression, which made it a “life and death” case that required urgent intervention.



While the case files remain confidential, Theron says so far the case has highlighted the disturbing ease with which young girls can be conned by false advertisements on social media platforms promising lucrative earnings and new friendships.



Last year, several warnings were shared on Namibian-linked social platforms, warning of Facebook accounts in the names of 'Mona Helmy', and a 'Jonathan Spears'. Both accounts are inactive at the moment.



The accounts advertised modelling work that promised to pay US$250 000 per year.



Theron explains that online predators, especially an organised ring as is suspected in this case, often create false online identities on social media and link to real international entities to claim legitimacy.



“Children are not stupid. That is what I saw in this case. They do all in their power to find out if it is legit. They will ask this person to give them names of other people who have benefitted from the programme,” she says.



In this case, the online perpetrators connected the potential victims with other purported beneficiaries, who then praised and verified the original offer.



Theron says once the girls make contact, the grooming starts, with the online personae deploying all their charm to build trust with their victims. Gradually, they start demanding photos, at first innocent, and then more explicit.



Once compromising images or videos are provided, the perpetrators turn the relationship around, threatening to go public unless the girls provide them with more, increasingly compromising material.



When they try to leave, the threats are made real, with family or friends receiving messages containing material the girls shared. Often, they feel their only choice is to remain and do what they are told.



“When we met the three girls for the first time, they were in a very bad emotional state. Now they were getting threats, and they were afraid their parents would find out. I imagine they are all on their own, and they are looking for solace amongst themselves, but they are all just so young, inexperienced and afraid,” Theron says.



Since then, two of the girls have gone completely offline and with the support of their families they are recovering from the ordeal.







On your doorstep







At least seven schools and tertiary institutions in Namibia have learners who have become involved with the online predator ring, although there could be many more, Theron says.



Interviews with learners at several schools revealed that many were aware of the recruiters and their advertisements.



Some claimed that the recruiters had managed to convince learners to start recruiting on their behalf, demonstrating how easily the initial online relationship evolves into an offline relationship where the girls become foot soldiers for their anonymous masters.



These girls are also used to threaten, sometimes physically, others that might wish to escape.



Theron describes the relationship between the girls and the online perpetrators as a “master and slave” relationship, which is underscored by the language used by them.



Online messages she has seen include crude, belittling and threatening words and phrases, including “little slut”, “little whore”, “servant”.



Girls have told her that they were “servants” or “slaves” who must serve their master.



The perpetrators become increasingly demanding and the girls are forced to compromise friendships, family relations and their studies in a constant quest to provide their masters with the footage they demand.



“To the point that they no longer have a life, it becomes so obsessive. It can be any time of the day, where or with who you are. And it goes on for hours and hours. So imagine what it does to the academics, their family lives, their relationships. Other healthy relationships are compromised. You don't have another life, you have to serve him.”



Theron believes the operation is not driven by a single person or a few people, but likely by an organised syndicate.



“I think it is much bigger than what we would like to believe. I think it's a much wider organised ring.”



She says it is likely that the images and videos sent to the perpetrators are sold online to international porn sites.



Theron says one of the ways parents and educators can help children avoid cybercriminals is to get back to basics. “Parents need to sit with their children and make time to listen to them. We are always busy these days, but we have a responsibility, including the children and teachers, to listen to each other.”

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