The victims made contact with unknown people through chat rooms and social networks on the web who encouraged them to send erotic pictures or videos of themselves, police said on Thursday.
Individuals who sent such images were then blackmailed into sending money by the perpetrators who threatened to publish the intimate picture and videos on the internet.
The blackmailers often initiate the online relationship by sending revealing photos, feigning a sexual interest in the victim and even expressing the desire to start a relationship, police said.
Through such tricks the victims are encouraged to send erotic pictures of themselves and even to perform sex acts in front of the webcam, which the criminals then record for blackmailing purposes.
The phenomenon has been a problem in other countries, including the UK where reports last year said thousands of teens were targeted by “sextortionists”.
In a well-publicized case, 17-year-old Daniel killed himself last July by jumping off a bridge near Edinburgh, Scotland after becoming embroiled in an online relationship with a girl who then demanded money.
Such cases have also been linked to cyber-bullying where individuals are mocked and taunted on the internet.
Bern said of the 50 reported cases between June 2014 and January 2015, the criminals were successful in extorting money in only three cases, obtaining a total of 36,000 francs.
Pro Juvente, a Swiss charity devoted to counselling youth and advocating support for children, has run campaigns for some time that warn of such risks.
Young people who exchange intimate photos of themselves via mobile phones and the internet put themselves at risk of being exploited, the group says.
The Swiss federal Cybercrime Coordination Unit has been warning about “sextortion” since July 2013.
Bern police issued the following advice:
- Mistrust any stranger encountered through the internet who asks you to send erotic pictures of yourself or to perform sexual acts in front of the web cam
- If you are being blackmailed break off contact immediately and contact police, providing all available data, such as contact details and print screens of chats
- Do not send money to unknown persons and certainly not via a money transfer service
- Contact the provider of the internet platform involved (for example Facebook or YouTube) to prevent or undo publication of photos or videos that you are opposed to
The Cybercrime Coordination Unit has issued further information (in German, French or Italian) that can be found here.