UAE schoolgirl’s blackmail reveals online dangers

SHARJAH // When a 17-year-old schoolgirl struck up an online friendship with an older man, blackmail was the last thing she was expecting.

As their relationship seemingly blossomed he used the boldness that faceless interaction can promote to ask her for revealing pictures. Thinking that no one else would know, she sent them, only for the images to be used by the man against her.

A teacher noticed the girl’s performance at school had deteriorated and that she was keeping to herself. A quiet word led to the discovery of the girl’s predicament and to help arriving.

“Her behaviour changed, her performance in school became below par. She shunned way from her friends until the teacher talked to her. She told the teacher that she was being blackmailed by a 22-year-old and she was afraid to tell her parents, and she feared her pictures would be exposed,” said Lt Col Ali Al Naddas, director of community police in Sharjah.

The teacher reported the incident to Sharjah community police and the man was tracked down and the matter resolved discreetly.

“If the teacher didn’t notice or didn’t care about her pupil, you would never know what would have happened to her. Children are afraid to report these incidents to their parents, fearing punishment,” Lt Col Al Naddas added.

On Monday, Sharjah’s police chief was keen to alert parents to the issues children face online at the launch of the third Child Safety Campaign.

The campaign targets children, parents, teaching staff and child specialists about the importance of keeping children safe online, and promotes optimal uses of social media.

“More children are going online. They meet a lot of individuals and talk to strangers on social media platforms and other websites, which may compromise them and make them become a target of these crimes,” said Brig Saif Al Zari.

Ghaith Al Mazaina, from The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, said that, in addition to social media platforms, online games can be used to blackmail teenagers.

“Online games have internal chat systems that lets the player interact with other players, which makes it an ideal opportunity for predators to meet vulnerable teens. Social interaction and fake friendships are forged, which results in some cases turning into blackmailing incidents,” he said.

“Parents should be aware about these game platforms as more children are online playing these games – they need to know who their children are talking to.”

Children aged between 14 and 18 are most vulnerable to online blackmail, according to FNC council member Aisha Bin Samnuh.

“I have carried out many awareness campaigns to warn children, parents and teachers about this subject. A lot of the young ones do not know what to do when they fall prey to predators. The incident might spiral out of control and end up putting the teen in more problems and danger,” she said.

“Teens revolt, their personalities change, they go online to vent and express themselves. This is typical behaviour. They should be taught from an early age about these scenarios and how to report them without fear.”

She called on teachers and school social counsellors to connect with their pupils so that they can sense if they are facing any problems.

“Kids spend more time at schools than home, so teachers can be a line of defence in spotting a change of behaviour in these children. Connecting with them might reveal blackmail incidents that can be tackled and resolved in confidence,” Ms Bin Samnuh said.

Lt Col Al Naddas added: “Young teens need to know that they can report these incidents to their teachers, parents or police at an early stage without fear. The earlier, the better to contain any damage from the incident.”

He said police deal with these incidents with complete discretion.

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