A virtual crimewave

This paradigm shift in crime is a significant threat to the reputation of the law enforcement community.

Online crime is booming. As other more traditional forms of crime fall away, cyber-crime seems to be taking the opportunity to fill the gap in the market.

Phishing, where a criminal will attempt to obtain personal information about the victim in order to defraud them, is one of the oldest online crimes, originating as long ago as the mid 1990’s. There are billions of attempted phishing frauds carried out every year now.

Child pornography is, unfortunately, also a growth business. Today’s Metro reports the case of ten year-old Sweetie from the Philippines, who was sent into online chat forums by Dutch Charity Terre Des Hommes as part of a research project to entrap paedophiles. This sounds a bit extreme until you discover that Sweetie does not actually exist and is merely a CGI generated avatar. Still, apparently 20,000 potential paedophiles were fooled.

Details have been passed onto Interpol, but they will have to gather their own evidence if they wish to prosecute and usually will only do so if a victim complains, which is unlikely in this case since Sweetie, as I mentioned, does not exist.

This does point to the challenge for the forces of law enforcement globally in catching up with this virtual crime wave and avoiding the perception that they are being left behind by fast moving developments. Of course, the reality is that they are in fact being left behind and are scrambling to change their operational capacity in order to catch up.

The closure of online marketplace Silk Road by the FBI, reported by the New York Times in October is a rare example of success in the fight against cyber-crime. The drugs and forged documents bazaar reportedly had 100,000 customers and a turnover of up to $1.2 billion. In an indication of the changing criminal demographic, the 29 year-old mastermind behind Silk Road went by the name of Dread Pirate Roberts, lived with his parents and was arrested in a library.

This paradigm shift in crime is a significant threat to the reputation of the law enforcement community. Not only do they face considerable technical challenges in investigating cyber-crime, but there are also resource and jurisdictional issues. Hard-pressed police forces are unwilling to devote significant resources to offences that have been committed in a virtual world, where both offenders and victims could located literally anywhere on the planet.

There are, however, some signs that the police are beginning to adapt to the new world and even starting to utilise the capabilities provided by social media to investigate crime. My old force, Surrey Police, have recently conducted their first ever Tweconstruction, reconstructing on Twitter that most traditional of crimes, an armed robbery at a Co-Op store.

They also used the same device to appeal for information concerning the whereabouts of missing Surrey teenager Esme Smith. This publicity tool proved to be a great success and reached 113,000 Twitter followers as well as achieving widespread coverage on Facebook. This was a clever, targeted, use of exactly the social media channels that teenagers frequent and is a good example of where the future may lie for police forces aiming both to make use of the internet and to avoid looking caught flat-footed by it.

Tim Morris
Associate Director
Linstock Communications