An autistic 17-year-old college student has hanged himself after receiving a ransomware scam.
Joseph Edwards was alarmed after receiving an email that falsely claimed he'd been spotted browsing illegal websites and needed to pay £100 (payable in Ukash electronic money) or face being prosecuted. The email pushing the well-known police ransomware scam also downloaded malware that locked up his laptop once it was opened.
Police ransomware of this type does not encrypt files and is normally much easier to purge from infected systems, a factor that underlines the tragedy of what transpired.
Edwards was so distressed by the accusation and the extortionate demand that he took his own life hours after falling victim to the cruel scam on 6 August last year.
The A-level student's developmental differences likely made him more susceptible to thinking the scam email, supposedly sent from from Cheshire police, was genuine, a coroner heard on Thursday.
Edwards, who attended a "mainstream" school, was found hanged at his family home in Windsor, Berkshire by his mother Jacqueline Edwards, who told the coroner that he probably didn't understand the implications of his actions. She has since begun a campaign to raise awareness about internet scams.
After Joseph's death, a Facebook page was created called "Fake Police Email Scam in Memory of Joseph Edwards" (available here).
"He didn't seem to have any worries known to me. I don't think he really understood," Jacqueline Edwards told the coroner.
"Joseph was subjected to a scam on the internet, a threatening, fake police link that was asking for money," his mother said in a statement, the Daily Telegraph reports. "He would have taken it literally because of his autism and he didn't want to upset Georgia [his sister] or me."
Detective Sergeant Peter Wall said it was very difficult to trace those responsible for the "elaborate" scam but it's likely to have originated outside the UK. Historically a lot of this type of fraud has come from Ukraine and to a lesser extent Romania.
The spam email, complete with Cheshire Police insignia, falsely claimed that indecent images had been found in the possession of the recipient, the intended mark for the scam.
The teenager died from asphyxia as a result of hanging, according to the post-mortem. Coroner Michael Burgess recorded an open verdict.
"He was suspended from the bannister by a ligature," Coroner Burgess ruled. "Although he undertook that action himself, his intention is not clear from the evidence."
"This scam may have caused him great distress and difficulty," he added.
The tragedy is mercifully rare but not unprecedented. Last year a Romanian “ransomware victim” hanged himself and his four-year-old son. A strain of police ransomware called IcePol was linked to the case, which involved extortionate demands for around $21,600. In 2012-13 the average Romanian yearly salary was just $7,200. ®