Ishmael Duncan pretended to be a model agency scout to blackmail children into sending sexually explicit photos, ITV News Correspondent Lucy Watson reports
The first thing the mother of one of Ishmael Duncan’s victims said to me was: “It came into our home and we didn’t know it was there.
“He had control of her and he shouldn’t have. He took her innocence away. She was only 11.”
That is the pernicious nature of this crime.
It gets into homes, into children’s bedrooms without an adult being aware of what is going on in the next room.
Sarah’s daughter Natasha – both names have been changed to protect the victims – was manipulated and abused online for six months by Duncan.
She is a child who will bear scars for the rest of her life, scars people will never see.
Sarah told me: “Your world stops because you don’t think it’s going to happen to you. You go into protection mode – what can I do now, who do I speak to?
“She is a beautiful girl and he destroyed that. She slit her wrists a few times. He made her feel so low, so bad and that’s stuck with her.”
Duncan exploited Natasha and 27 other young girls and received 53 criminal charges, but in his police interview, he refused to face his up to those crimes.
Yet, for three years – at his home in Lambeth, London – Duncan pretended he worked for a modelling agency, coercing girls as young as nine to send him explicit photographs and videos of themselves.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) showed me several of those messages.
Duncan told children what to wear, what clothes to take off, and what to do to themselves.
If they failed to do what he said, he would threaten to post their images across all social media platforms, or tell their parents or their family and friends.
“This is your first and only warning,” he said in a message to one victim.
Duncan’s criminal activity was first spotted by the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in America.
A father in Florida had realised that his two daughters were being contacted online by Duncan and he wanted that activity checked out.
When the US traced Duncan to the UK, the case was then handed over to the NCA.
Martin Ludlow was the senior investigating officer on the operation. Leading up to Duncan’s arrest there were 40 officers working solely on the case.
Duncan was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment on Thursday.
It was the NCA’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection team that worked to identify his victims, safeguard them, and track Duncan down to his home in Lambeth.
When officers turned up at his door with a warrant to search his home, he was online even then.
Duncan’s behaviour was first reported to the NCA back in May 2021.
Officers then discovered he’d created numerous fake profiles and social media accounts, to make his scam as a model agent more believable.
He pretended to be a model scout and a photographer so he could back up his narrative.
Detectives now believe that he contacted more than 10,000 children from across the world online over that three-year period.
“His planning was meticulous,” Mr Ludlow said.
“He spent most of his waking hours on social media seeking to have power and control over these victims, that’s what he was seeking … a total lack of empathy for the carnage that he leaves behind.”
I asked him if it was a crime under control or one that was running away with us.
“The problem is huge and getting bigger and we need to accept that. All of us need to play a part,” Mr Ludlow said.
The NCA has a special global task force that deals with the criminal aspects of these types of offences.
But it also plays a different role too, an educational one, that involves teaching children as young as four about the risks.
I went with the NCA on a school visit where a group of teenage boys were being taught about online blackmail.
The team told me that every month in the UK, 800 people are arrested for online child exploitation offences, with 1,200 children needing safeguarding.
I then chatted to the students and asked them how many of them had been contacted online by somebody they didn’t know, someone they had never met in real life before.
They all put their hands up.
There were around 10 pupils in this lesson so I asked them: “Do you think that’s probably quite true of everybody in your class, your form?“
“Yes, absolutely,” they replied.
I was genuinely shocked. Our children are exposed and I felt naïve and uninformed.
Marie Smith was also in the lesson. She is an NCA Education Officer who told me, “these individuals [offenders] will gain access to children wherever they are.”
“They could be talking to hundreds of children and young people at any one time so we want to train those individuals [the students] to have the confidence to stop that contact,” Ms Smith added.
The teacher then asked his students if they thought they were good at spotting a fake persona or fake profile online.
Again, they all put their hands up.
The young may be confident, but their privacy can be lost at the click of a mouse, and education is only part of their protection.
Where can you find help if you’re struggling?
Samaritans run a 24/7 free-to-use helpline (116 123) for anyone who needs a friendly face to talk to. Alternatively, people can email or visit its website, which is home to a wide array of learning resources.
The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) operates a helpline (0800 58 58 58), which is in service between 5pm and midnight every day. Or if you prefer not to speak on the phone, you could try the CALM webchat service.
If you would prefer not to talk but want some mental health support, you could text SHOUT to 85258. Shout offers a confidential 24/7 text service providing support if you are in crisis and need immediate help.
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