A man from London manipulated and blackmailed dozens of young girls into sending indecent photos and videos of themselves by pretending to be a model agency scout.
National Crime Agency officers identified Ishmael Duncan, 24, as the person behind Snapchat accounts which were used to coerce and threaten children into sending explicit images.
Duncan was convicted of offences against 28 female victims, some as young as nine, from the UK, US, Canada and Australia. However, investigators believe he contacted over 10,000 children online from these accounts.
The NCA was able to locate victims and gather evidence because of material recovered by Snapchat that was not end-to-end encrypted.
US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) initially shared details with the NCA of a report made to Florida Police by the family of two sisters, who said they were threatened after sending explicit images to one of the accounts.
Analysis of internet data relating to the fake Snapchat profiles showed that the accounts linked to multiple locations, but the NCA was able to establish that Duncan was behind all of them.
He was arrested in July 2021 at his home in Lambeth, where officers seized a number of devices. Material recovered from these and cloud storage included chat logs from the various Snapchat accounts Duncan used and indecent images he had extorted from children.
He would begin by approaching potential victims to ask if they were interested in becoming a model for well-known fashion brands. Those that responded would be asked for their age and personal details before he requested clothed images or videos. He then took them through a lengthy interview process to build their trust, and sent them legitimate looking contracts which featured the impersonated brand’s logo.
He would request topless photos on the pretext of assessing the victims’ body shape, and to use as a base for editing in clothes to be modelled. Girls who challenged this were told the original photos would be deleted after editing, with some threatened with being ‘blacklisted’ from modelling if they didn’t comply.
Duncan contacted victims from multiple accounts and adopted different personas within the model agency to give a sense of authenticity, including ‘Callum’ (the photographer) and ‘Mark’ (the general manager of the preteen models division).
He then created a separate account to contact the same victims, sometimes many months later, threatening to expose and share their photos unless they complied with his demands for more images.
Part of this process was to send the following text: “This is an automated message. We have your nudes, and unless you reply to this message saying “I understand", they will be sent out to expose accounts on Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter. If you reply with anything else other than “I understand”, or if you block or unfriend this account, your nudes will be sent out. This is your first and only warning.”
Separate to his modelling approach, he targeted other potential victims claiming to be a child of a similar age, requesting sexual images and videos. He blackmailed a 14-year-old girl who sent him images, and also offered her $1,000 to engage in a sexual act with her brother.
In total, officers recovered 19,120 indecent images of children in categories A-C (A being the most severe) from his devices and cloud storage.
Duncan was charged with 53 counts including causing or inciting a child under 13 to engage in sexual activity (penetrative and non-penetrative), blackmail, sexual communication with a child, indecent and prohibited images of children (making and possession) and possession of extreme pornographic images.
He appeared at Inner London Crown Court on 21 August this year, where he admitted to 42 of the counts, then pleaded guilty to a further eight counts on 14 September. Two counts of attempting to incite a child to engage in sexual activity and one count of blackmail will lie on file.
Duncan was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment at the same court today (7 December). He was also given a lifetime Sexual Harm Prevention Order, placed on the Sex Offenders Register indefinitely and handed a forfeiture order in relation to three phones and a laptop.
One victim, who read an impact statement before the court, said:
“I was 11 years old when you first made contact with me. At this time I was a vulnerable young girl struggling with my confidence and suffering from anxiety. Your online comments and compliments made me feel better about myself and made me believe that I could have a future in modelling, something which all young girls aspire towards. You lied to me and this led me to wanting to look a certain way on the pictures so I stopped eating.
“For months I could not bring myself to leave my home because of the thought of you finding me and telling everyone what I did. I was petrified that you would find me and come to my house and hurt, perhaps kill myself or one of my family members. I used to wake up in the middle of the night thinking that you were inside my house which terrified me.”
“Because of what you did to me, I isolated myself from my family and friends for months because I was disgusted with myself. Although I now know deep down that none of this was my fault, I still cannot help blaming myself and feeling some guilt. You have made me suffer for four years and I feel that what you did to me will stay with me forever.”
In a statement read before the court, another victim said: “Now I know he’s going to get sentenced I am less upset about the situation and I know me and all the other victims are safe. I feel sorry for the younger children who experienced it. That should not be the case, it’s disgusting. I’m glad to know Ishmael Duncan will be sentenced for what he’s done to me.”
“I hope children become more aware of people like him because they will know how to protect themselves. For any other victims of these crimes I have a message for you: ‘It is ok to say no, don’t be afraid to say it. Your mental health matters and make sure to tell people when it happens because they can help you to feel better’.”
NCA Operations Manager Martin Ludlow said: “Ishmael Duncan’s offending was systematic, manipulative and heartless.
“He cruelly exploited young girls who had aspirations of becoming models, purely for his own sexual gratification.
“I would like to commend the bravery of all of these young victims for coming forward to help bring Duncan to justice today.
“This case is another example of the NCA working closely with overseas partners to identify and safeguard victims.
“We will continue to operate online and internationally to target those offenders who pose the most serious risk to children.”
Wendy Hart, Deputy Director for Child Sexual Abuse at the National Crime Agency, said: “This case shows the vital role that social media companies have in supplying information to support the successful prosecution of online child sex abusers.
"The introduction of end-to-end encryption by some platforms in messenger services will severely inhibit law enforcement’s ability to obtain evidence, convict offenders and protect children from harmful abuse.”
Jeanette Smith, Specialist Prosecutor for the CPS, said: “Ishmael Duncan made a number of different accounts with false personas, for the predatory purpose of targeting children online and obtaining sexual images of them for his own gratification.
“Using fake profiles, often posing as a modelling agent or a teenage boy, Duncan was able to manipulate children into sending indecent images of themselves. He would then go on to threaten and blackmail his victims to comply with his sick demands for more explicit material.
“This prosecution sends a clear message that the CPS, working alongside the NCA and international partners, will work to bring justice to those who sexually abuse and exploit children, wherever that abuse takes place.
“The CPS’s Organised Child Sexual Abuse Unit was set up last year as a specialist unit dedicated to prosecuting child sexual abuse, in all its forms.”
An NSPCC spokesperson said: "It is immensely disturbing the ease with which Duncan was able to access and harm children around the world - using social media to blackmail and sexually exploit them.
"It is cases like this that show the urgent need for tech companies to abide by the UK's Online Safety Act, which requires they make their sites safer for children, ensuring that young people are protected from abuse."
After sentencing Duncan, Her Honour Judge Newbery said that she was “in awe of the undertaking” of the NCA’s investigation into his criminality.
The NCA’s CEOP Education programme supports parents, carers, children and the professionals to ensure young people have safe and positive experiences online.
If someone is threatening a child online, including demanding nude images or money, it’s safest to not respond, and to block and report them to the site and the Police. Under 18 year olds worried about online sexual abuse, including online blackmail, can also report directly to the NCA’s CEOP Safety Centre by visiting www.ceop.police.uk
07 December 2023