Craig Simpson was last seen alive leaving home in the middle of March this year. The 56-year-old’s body was pulled out of the nearby River Lugg in Herefordshire a week later.
Police discovered messages on his mobile phone revealing that he had recently been blackmailed into making Bitcoin payments to stop criminals sharing his private information with family and friends, despite nothing on his phone or computer showing he had ever visited an adult website.
He had been a victim of ‘ransomware’ – a cruel attack by computer criminals who blackmail their victims by threatening to spread lies that they have been watching online porn. The mental torture that may have led to his death is hard to imagine but the agony etched on the face of his loving father Bernard is easier to understand.
Devastated: Bernard Simpson, with wife Hazel, now wants others to be aware of the ransomware scam that took his son’s life
The 80-year-old retired company director is in Lanzarote on a much needed break. But it will not help heal the heartbreak of losing his beloved son. At his side is Hazel, his second wife – his first wife (Craig’s mother) died four years ago of cancer. But despite the sunshine and the company of his 79-year-old wife, there is rarely a moment when Bernard is able to shake off the ever present grief.
Bernard says: ‘Something has broken inside of me that can never be fixed. I only share this agony in the hope that others will not suffer the same fate that befell my son.
‘Craig was my eldest son and the rock at the heart of our family. His loss has left us all utterly devastated and also affected hundreds in our community who paid their respects at his funeral. The criminals should be forced to feel the heartache they have caused.’
Police discovered Craig’s car at the Riverside Inn at Aymestrey in North Herefordshire after his wife called them concerned he had not returned home. Officers discovered his mobile phone in the car – and on it were emails showing that someone had been blackmailing him, threatening to expose his alleged adult website visits to close friends and family.
At the inquest held in September, Detective Constable Theresa Wood said: ‘Mr Simpson had been sent an email from an unknown person who made a demand for some money over the internet in Bitcoin.
‘The email stated that if he did not comply and make this payment everybody in his phone contacts would find out what he had been using the internet for.’
Police enquiries indicated that Craig had made two payments for undisclosed amounts and that the demands originated from Iran. There was no way of tracing the criminals.
Craig had been prescribed anti-depressants in the months before his death. But the coroner, Mark Bricknell, speaking at the inquest, said: ‘Mr Simpson was a sound, hardworking man of the community. It appears he was blackmailed and this added or caused the stress he was suffering. He may have contemplated suicide – but despite notes being left I am not sufficiently satisfied that was necessarily his intent.’ The coroner recorded an open verdict as he could not be sure that, following heavy snow, Craig did not accidentally fall into the freezing river. But Craig’s father is convinced that the blackmailers were a contributory factor in his death. His eyes well up with tears as he describes the positive energy that the married father of two grown-up daughters shared with everyone he met – and how he is now desperately trying to pay tribute to his son by refusing to be eaten up by hate.
FOUR WAYS TO COMBAT THE RANSOM THREAT
- Delete dubious messages without opening them. Never respond as this may attract more demands for money.
- Change passwords because criminals use such details obtained from website security breaches and social media hacks.
- Be vigilant and cover computer cameras. Be wary of sharing personal details on social media and do not click on pop-up windows.
- Tell others of attacks. Report to the police and the crime data-collecting agency Action Fraud.
The Shropshire-based grandfather of seven says: ‘These blackmailers may be evil and not care about what they do, but if I hate them then it will only destroy me. Of course, I would like to see the villains brought to justice, but most important of all is that no one else falls victim to their chilling crime.’
Bernard becomes animated as he describes the ‘special bond’ he had with his devoted eldest son – throwing his arms in the air as he expresses the warmth they shared with one another. Craig would contact his father daily. Bernard says: ‘He was the most straightforward and decent man you could ever hope to meet. Never a bad word was said about him by anyone.
‘Craig would always go out of his way to put a smile on your face. When he walked into the room he made you feel better about life. He was such a positive spirit and this makes his death so hard to understand.’
They shared a passion for Blackburn Rovers Football Club, growing up in Lancashire along with his two younger brothers, now aged 55 and 43. Bernard says: ‘He would always ring me after a game and if the team had lost – which was far too often – Craig would tell me to look on the positive side and that the team would soon go on a good run and results would go their way.’ Craig was also a fan of cars. From the age of eight he was able to identify most makes and models out on the road. Bernard says: ‘His first car was a Triumph Herald. Craig had a real soft spot for classic motors and had an almost encyclopaedic memory for facts about them. My son had everything to live for and it was a dream of his to own a classic car in the future. That will now never happen.’
Tragedy: Craig Simpson was a victim of Iranian blackmailers
Bernard’s voice cracks with emotion but he refuses to allow himself to be swallowed up by grief – always smiling and greeting others at the hotel complex where he is staying – and not sharing the terrible secret that he admits has left him crushed. He adds: ‘I talk to him now all the time. It is the only way I can cope. Without Hazel pushing me I think it would be impossible to keep carrying on.’
As well as a loving family, Craig also had a successful career as a sales and marketing manager, though it meant spending several weeks at a time away from home on the road in Europe.
Bernard admits: ‘He was hard working but part of me wonders if he sometimes pushed himself too much – being so busy can lead to exhaustion and his mind could have been fragile and made him ill.’
He says that his son had recently been suffering from tinnitus – ringing in the ears – though he never wanted to bother anyone else about it. He says: ‘The day before his death he told me he was off to see the doctor – but there was nothing to worry about. I said I would call the next day to see how he got on. But we never spoke again.’
On the verge of tears he gets up to leave. But not without a final word about those who perpetrate ‘ransomware’ threats on innocent people like Craig.
‘These people need to be stopped in their tracks,’ he says. ‘They are causing untold misery. Maybe your newspaper’s highlighting of this new computer scourge will prevent others from falling victim. I really do hope so.’
HOW VICTIMS OF VILE THREATS HAVE PANICKED, PAID UP – THEN FACED MORE DEMANDS
Some people who are victims of ransomware pay up
John Partridge – not his real name – broke down in tears to The Mail on Sunday as he admitted paying £250 to criminals, only then to be plagued with further demands for money.
The 65-year-old landscape gardener says: ‘Guilt was at the heart of behaving so irrationally. I had looked at pornography two days earlier. I felt like a naughty schoolboy caught in the act. What if my wife found out? What would the grandchildren think of what I had done?’
Kent-based John adds: ‘I panicked when told they had recorded what I had been watching on a computer webcam. The stress was unbearable. I could not sleep, had panic attacks – my wife thought I was ill. In the end I paid up.’
Threat: How we told the story last month about the plague of attacks
He managed to pay £250 of the £350 demanded in Bitcoin within the 48-hour ‘deadline’. More ‘ransomware’ demands followed but came to nothing. John deleted them and realised he had been duped by a cruel blackmail trick.
Kerry Fox was a police officer for more than 35 years and still works for the police as a civilian. He recently received a ‘ransom-ware’ threat. The 60-year-old, from Hampshire, says: ‘The bullying nature of these emails is sickening. Fortunately, I am made of stern stuff and knew I had done nothing wrong. But the fact the technology is out there to spy through people’s computer cameras left me concerned.
‘The first thing I did was put sticky tape over my webcam. I have a couple of teenage boys and also talked to them about this awful crime.’ Kerry told his local police station about the ransom. He says: ‘It is blackmail. If a person makes an unwarranted demand with menaces to gain for either themselves or another with intent to cause loss to another, a sentence of up to 14 years in prison can be given.’
Jenny Millar was a nurse for 48 years and thought she had seen it all, but was left shaken by a ‘ransomware’ attack she received.
She says: ‘The blackmail was nasty and chilled me to the bone. It included my computer username and password and I felt violated. But experience has told me that in a panic situation the best course of action is to take a step back and put on the kettle.’
Jenny, 68, from Headley in Surrey, adds: ‘I sat down to re-read the message with a cup of tea. By the end I was almost falling off my chair with laughter. I have never visited an adult website, do not have a computer webcam and having licentious personal information shared with family would not bother me.’
Her advice for targeted victims – whether they have visited adult websites or not – is to ignore it. And make a cup of tea.