Cybercrime encompasses a wide range of criminal activities that are carried out using digital devices and/or networks. These crimes involve the use of technology to commit fraud, identity theft, data breaches, computer viruses, scams, and expanded upon in other malicious acts. Cybercriminals exploit vulnerabilities in computer systems and networks to gain unauthorized access, steal sensitive information, disrupt services, and cause financial or reputational harm to individuals, organizations, and governments.[1]

In 2000, the tenth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders placed cyber crimes into five categories: unauthorized access, damage to computer data or programs, sabotage to hinder the functioning of a computer system or network, unauthorized interception of data within a system or network, and computer espionage.[1]

Internationally, both state and non-state actors engage in cybercrimes, including espionage, financial theft, and other cross-border crimes. Cybercrimes crossing international borders and involving the actions of at least one nation-state are sometimes referred to as cyberwarfare. Warren Buffett has said that cybercrime is the "number one problem with mankind"[2] and that it "poses real risks to humanity".[3]

The World Economic Forum's (WEF) 2020 Global Risks Report confirmed that organized cybercrime groups are joining forces to commit criminal activities online, while estimating the likelihood of their detection and prosecution to be less than 1 percent in the US.[4] There are also many privacy concerns surrounding cybercrime when confidential information is intercepted or disclosed, legally or otherwise.

The World Economic Forum’s 2023 Global Risks Report ranks cybercrime as one of the top 10 risks facing the world today and for the next 10 years.[5] If cybercrime were viewed as a nation state, cybercrime would count as the third largest economy in the world.[6] In numbers, cybercrime is predicted to cause over 9 trillion in damages worldwide in 2024.[6]  

Classifications

Computer crime encompasses a broad range of activities, including computer fraud, financial crimes, scams, cybersex trafficking, and ad-fraud.[7][8]

Computer fraud

Main article: Computer fraud

Computer fraud is the act of using a computer to take or alter electronic data, or to gain unlawful use of a computer or system.[9] Computer fraud that involves the use of the internet is also called internet fraud. The legal definition of computer fraud varies by jurisdiction, but typically involves accessing a computer without permission or authorization.

Forms of computer fraud include hacking into computers to alter information, distributing malicious code such as computer worms or viruses, installing malware or spyware to steal data, phishing, and advance-fee scams.[10]

Other forms of fraud may be committed using computer systems, including bank fraud, carding, identity theft, extortion, and theft of classified information. These types of crimes often result in the loss of personal or financial information.

Cyberterrorism

Main article: Cyberterrorism

The term cyberterrorism refers to acts of terrorism committed through the use of cyberspace or computer resources.[11] Acts of disruption of computer networks and personal computers through viruses, worms, phishing, malicious software, hardware, or programming scripts can all be forms of cyberterrorism.[12]

Government officials and information technology (IT) security specialists have documented a significant increase in network problems and server scams since early 2001. In the United States there is an increasing concern from agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).[citation needed]

Cyberextortion

Cyberextortion occurs when a website, e-mail server, or computer system is subjected to or threatened with attacks by malicious hackers, often through denial-of-service attacks. Cyberextortionists demand money in return for promising to stop the attacks and provide "protection". According to the FBI, cyberextortionists are increasingly attacking corporate websites and networks, crippling their ability to operate, and demanding payments to restore their service. More than 20 cases are reported each month to the FBI, and many go unreported in order to keep the victim's name out of the public domain. Perpetrators often use a distributed denial-of-service attack.[13] However, other cyberextortion techniques exist, such as doxing and bug poaching. An example of cyberextortion was the Sony Hack of 2014.[14]

Ransomware

Main article: Ransomware

Ransomware is a type of malware used in cyberextortion to restrict access to files, sometimes threatening permanent data erasure unless a ransom is paid. Ransomware is a global issue, with more than 300 million attacks worldwide in 2021. According to the 2022 Unit 42 Ransomware Threat Report, in 2021 the average ransom demand in cases handled by Norton climbed 144 percent to $2.2 million, and there was an 85 percent increase in the number of victims who had their personal information shown on dark web information dumps.[15] A loss of nearly $400 million in 2021 and 2022 is just one of the statistics showing the impact of ransomware attacks on everyday people.[16]

Cybersex trafficking

Main article: Cybersex trafficking

Cybersex trafficking is the transportation of victims for such purposes as coerced prostitution or the live streaming of coerced sexual acts or rape on webcam.[17][18][19][20] Victims are abducted, threatened, or deceived and transferred to "cybersex dens".[21][22][23] The dens can be in any location where the cybersex traffickers have a computer, tablet, or phone with an internet connection.[19] Perpetrators use social media networks, video conferences, dating pages, online chat rooms, apps, dark web sites,[24] and other platforms.[25] They use online payment systems[24][26][27] and cryptocurrencies to hide their identities.[28] Millions of reports of cybersex incidents are sent to authorities annually.[29] New legislation and police procedures are needed to combat this type of cybercrime.[30]

There are an estimated 6.3 million victims of cybersex trafficking, according to a recent report by the International Labour Organization.[31] This number includes about 1.7 million child victims. An example of cybersex trafficking is the 2018–2020 Nth room case in South Korea.[32]

Cyberwarfare

Main article: Cyberwarfare

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, cyberspace has emerged as an arena for national-security threats through several recent events of geostrategic importance, including the attack on Estonia's infrastructure in 2007, allegedly by Russian hackers. In August 2008, Russia again allegedly conducted cyberattacks against Georgia. Fearing that such attacks may become a normal part of future warfare among nation-states, military commanders see a need to develop cyberspace operations.[33]

Computers as a tool

Main articles: Internet fraud, Spamming, Phishing, and Carding (fraud)

When an individual is the target of cybercrime, the computer is often the tool rather than the target. These crimes, which typically exploit human weaknesses, usually do not require much technical expertise. These are the types of crimes which have existed for centuries in the offline world. Criminals have simply been given a tool that increases their pool of potential victims and makes them all the harder to trace and apprehend.[34]

Crimes that use computer networks or devices to advance other ends include:

The unsolicited sending of bulk email for commercial purposes (spam) is unlawful in some jurisdictions.

Phishing is mostly propagated via email. Phishing emails may contain links to other websites that are affected by malware.[35] Or they may contain links to fake online banking or other websites used to steal private account information.

Obscene or offensive content

The content of websites and other electronic communications may be distasteful, obscene, or offensive for a variety of reasons. In some instances, it may be illegal. What content is unlawful varies greatly between countries, and even within nations. It is a sensitive area in which the courts can become involved in arbitrating between groups with strong beliefs.

One area of internet pornography that has been the target of the strongest efforts at curtailment is child pornography, which is illegal in most jurisdictions in the world.[citation needed]

Ad-fraud

See also: Ad fraud and Click fraud

Ad-frauds are particularly popular among cybercriminals, as such frauds are lucrative and unlikely to be prosecuted.[36] Jean-Loup Richet, a professor at the Sorbonne Business School, classified the large variety of ad-frauds committed by cybercriminals into three categories: identity fraud, attribution fraud, and ad-fraud services.[8]

Identity fraud aims to impersonate real users and inflate audience numbers. The techniques used for identity fraud include traffic from bots (coming from a hosting company, a data center, or compromised devices); cookie stuffing; falsification of user characteristics, such as location and browser type; fake social traffic (misleading users on social networks into visiting the advertised website); and fake social media accounts that make a bot appear legitimate.

Attribution fraud impersonates the activities of real users, such as clicks and conversations. Many ad-fraud techniques belong to this category: the use of hijacked and malware-infected devices as part of a botnet; click farms (companies where low-wage employees are paid to click or engage in conversations); incentivized browsing; video placement abuse (delivered in display banner slots); hidden ads (which will never be viewed by real users); domain spoofing (ads served on a fake website); and clickjacking, in which the user is forced to click on an ad.

Ad-fraud services include all online infrastructure and hosting services that might be needed to undertake identity or attribution fraud. Services can involve the creation of spam websites (fake networks of websites that provide artificial backlinks); link building services; hosting services; or fake and scam pages impersonating a famous brand.

Online harassment

See also: Cyberbullying, Online predator, Cyberstalking, Cyber Racism, and Internet troll

The examples and perspective in this section may not represent a worldwide view of the subject. You may improve this section, discuss the issue on the talk page, or create a new section, as appropriate. (March 2016) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)

Whereas content may be offensive in a non-specific way, harassment directs obscenities and derogatory comments at specific individuals, often focusing on gender, race, religion, nationality, or sexual orientation.

Committing a crime using a computer can lead to an enhanced sentence. For example, in the case of United States v. Neil Scott Kramer, the defendant was given an enhanced sentence according to the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual §2G1.3(b)(3) for his use of a cell phone to "persuade, induce, entice, coerce, or facilitate the travel of, the minor to engage in prohibited sexual conduct." Kramer appealed the sentence on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to convict him under this statute because his charge included persuading through a computer device and his cellular phone technically is not a computer. Although Kramer tried to argue this point, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual states that the term "computer" means "an electronic, magnetic, optical, electrochemical, or other high-speed data processing device performing logical, arithmetic, or storage functions, and includes any data storage facility or communications facility directly related to or operating in conjunction with such device."

In the United States, at least 41 states have passed laws and regulations that regard extreme online harassment as a criminal act. These acts can also be prosecuted on the federal level, because of US Code 18 Section 2261A, which states that using computers to threaten or harass can lead to a sentence of up to 20 years.[37]

Several countries besides the US have also created laws to combat online harassment. In China, a country with over 20 percent of the world's internet users, in response to the Human Flesh Search Engine bullying incident, the Legislative Affairs Office of the State Council passed a strict law against cyberbullying.[38][39] The United Kingdom passed the Malicious Communications Act, which states that sending messages or letters electronically that the government deems "indecent or grossly offensive" and/or language intended to cause "distress and anxiety" can lead to a prison sentence of six months and a potentially large fine.[40][41]  Australia, while not directly addressing the issue of harassment, includes most forms of online harassment under the Criminal Code Act of 1995. Using telecommunication to send threats, harass, or cause offense is a direct violation of this act.[42]

Although freedom of speech is protected by law in most democratic societies, it does not include all types of speech. Spoken or written threats can be criminalized because they harm or intimidate. This applies to online or network-related threats.

Cyberbullying has increased drastically with the growing popularity of online social networking. As of January 2020, 44 percent of adult internet users in the United States had "personally experienced online harassment".[43] Online harassment of children often has negative and even life-threatening effects. According to a 2021 survey, 41 percent of children develop social anxiety, 37 percent develop depression, and 26 percent have suicidal thoughts.[44]

The United Arab Emirates was found to have purchased the NSO Group's mobile spyware Pegasus for mass surveillance and a campaign of harassment of prominent activists and journalists, including Ahmed Mansoor, Princess Latifa, Princess Haya, and others. Ghada Oueiss was one of the many high-profile female journalists and activists who were targeted. She filed a lawsuit against UAE ruler Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan along with other defendants, accusing them of sharing her photos online.[45]

Drug trafficking

Darknet markets are used to buy and sell recreational drugs online. Some drug traffickers use encrypted messaging tools to communicate with drug mules or potential customers. The dark web site Silk Road, which started operations in 2011, was the first major online marketplace for drugs. It was permanently shut down in October 2013 by the FBI and Europol. After Silk Road 2.0 went down, Silk Road 3 Reloaded emerged. However, it was just an older marketplace named Diabolus Market that used the Silk Road name in order to get more exposure from the Silk Road brand's earlier success.[46]

Darknet markets have had a rise in traffic in recent years for many reasons, such as the anonymous purchases and often a system of reviews by other buyers.[47] There are many ways in which darknet markets can financially drain individuals. Vendors and customers alike go to great lengths to keep their identities a secret while online. Commonly used tools for hiding their online presence include virtual private networks (VPNs), Tails, and the Tor Browser. Darknet markets entice customers by making them feel comfortable. Although people can easily gain access to a Tor browser, actually gaining access to an illicit market is not as simple as typing it in on a search engine, as one would with Google. Darknet markets have special links that change frequently, ending in .onion as opposed to the typical .com, .net, and .org domain extensions. To add to privacy, the most prevalent currency on these markets is Bitcoin, which allows transactions to be anonymous.[48]

A problem that marketplace users sometimes face is exit scamming.[49] That is, a vendor with a high rating acts as if they are selling on the market and have users pay for products they never receive.[50] The vendor then closes their account after receiving money from multiple buyers and never sending what was paid for. The vendors, all of whom are involved in illegal activities, have no reason not to engage in exit scamming when they no longer want to be a vendor. In 2019, an entire market known as Wall Street Market allegedly exit scammed, stealing $30 million dollars in bitcoin.[51]

The FBI has cracked down on these markets. In July 2017, the FBI seized one of the biggest markets, commonly called Alphabay, which re-opened in August 2021 under the control of DeSnake, one of the original administrators.[52][53] Investigators pose as buyers and order products from darknet vendors in the hope that the vendors leave a trail the investigators can follow. In one case an investigator posed as a firearms seller, and for six months people purchased from them and provided home addresses.[54] The FBI was able to make over a dozen arrests during this six-month investigation.[54] Another crackdown targeted vendors selling fentanyl and opiates. With thousands of people dying each year due to drug overdose, investigators have made internet drug sales a priority.[55] Many vendors do not realize the extra criminal charges that go along with selling drugs online, such as money laundering and illegal use of the mail.[56] In 2019, a vendor was sentenced to 10 years in prison after selling cocaine and methamphetamine under the name JetSetLife.[57] But despite the large amount of time investigators spend tracking down people, in 2018 only 65 suspects who bought and sold illegal goods on some of the biggest markets were identified.[58] Meanwhile, thousands of transactions take place daily on these markets.

Notable incidents

Combating computer crime

Due to cybercriminals using the internet for cross-border attacks and crimes, the process of prosecuting cybercriminals has been difficult. The number of vulnerabilities that a cybercriminal has an opportunity has to exploit has also increased over the years. From 2008 to 2014 alone, there has been a 17.75% increase in vulnerabilities across all online devices.[76] The internet's expansive reach causes the damage inflicted to people to be magnified since many methods of cybercrime have the opportunity to reach many people. The availability of virtual spaces[77] has allowed cybercrime to become an everyday occurrence.[78] In 2018, the Internet Crime Complaint Center received 351,937 complaints of cybercrime, which led to $2.7 billion lost.[79]

Investigation

In a criminal investigation, a computer can be a source of evidence (see digital forensics). Even when a computer is not directly used for criminal purposes, it may contain records of value to criminal investigators in the form of a logfile. In many countries,[80] Internet Service Providers are required by law to keep their logfiles for a predetermined amount of time.

There are many ways for cybercrime to take place, and investigations tend to start with an IP Address trace; however, that does not necessarily enable detectives to solve a case. Different types of high-tech crime may also include elements of low-tech crime, and vice versa, making cybercrime investigators an indispensable part of modern law enforcement. Methods of cybercrime detective work are dynamic and constantly improving, whether in closed police units or in the framework of international cooperation.[81]

Senator Tommy Tuberville touring the National Computer Forensic Institute in Hoover, Alabama, in 2021

In the United States, the FBI[82] and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)[83] are government agencies that combat cybercrime. The FBI has trained agents and analysts in cybercrime placed in their field offices and headquarters.[82] In the DHS, the Secret Service has a Cyber Intelligence Section that works to target financial cybercrimes. They combat international cybercrime and work to protect institutions such as banks from intrusions and information breaches. Based in Alabama, the Secret Service and the Alabama Office of Prosecution Services work together to train professionals in law enforcement at the National Computer Forensic Institute.[83][84][85] The NCFI provides "state and local members of the law enforcement community with training in cyber incident response, investigation, and forensic examination in cyber incident response, investigation, and forensic examination."[85]

Investigating cyber crime within the United States and globally often requires partnerships. Within the United States, cyber crime may be investigated by law enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security, among other federal agencies. However, as the world becomes more dependent on technology, cyber attacks and cyber crime are going to expand as threat actors will continue to exploit weaknesses in protection and existing vulnerabilities to achieve their end goals, often being data theft or exfiltration. To combat cybercrime, the United States Secret Service maintains an Electronic Crimes Task Force which extends beyond the United States as it helps to locate threat actors that are located globally and performing cyber related crimes within the United States. The Secret Service is also responsible for the National Computer Forensic Institute which allows law enforcement and people of the court to receive cyber training and information on how to combat cyber crime. The United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement is responsible for the Cyber Crimes Center (C3) providing cyber crime related services for federal, state, local and international agencies. Finally, the United States also has resources relating to Law Enforcement Cyber Incident Reporting to allow local and state agencies to understand how, when, and what should be reported as a cyber incident to the federal government.[86]

Because cybercriminals commonly use encryption and other techniques to hide their identity and location, it can be difficult to trace a perpetrator after a crime is committed, so prevention measures are crucial.[78][87]

Prevention

The Department of Homeland Security also instituted the Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation (CDM) Program.[88] The CDM Program monitors and secures government networks by tracking network risks and informing system personnel so that they can take action. In an attempt to catch intrusions before the damage is done, the DHS created the Enhanced Cybersecurity Services (ECS).[89] The Cyber Security and Infrastructure Security Agency approves the private partners that provide intrusion detection and prevention services through the ECS.[89][90]

Cybersecurity professionals have been skeptical of prevention-focused strategies.[91] The mode of use of cybersecurity products has also been called into question. Shuman Ghosemajumder has argued that individual companies using a combination of products for security is not a scalable approach and has advocated for the use of cybersecurity technology primarily at the platform level.[92]

On a personal level, there are some strategies available to defend against cybercrime:[93]

Legislation

Because of weak laws, cybercriminals operating from developing countries can often evade detection and prosecution. In countries such as the Philippines, laws against cybercrime are weak or sometimes nonexistent. Cybercriminals can then strike from across international borders and remain undetected. Even when identified, these criminals can typically avoid being extradited to a country such as the US that has laws that allow for prosecution. For this reason, agencies such as the FBI have used deception and subterfuge to catch criminals. For example, two Russian hackers had been evading the FBI for some time. The FBI set up a fake computing company based in Seattle, Washington. They proceeded to lure the two Russian men into the United States by offering them work with this company. Upon completion of the interview, the suspects were arrested. Clever tricks like that are sometimes a necessary part of catching cybercriminals when weak laws and limited international cooperation make it impossible otherwise.[94]

The first cyber related law in the United States was the Privacy Act of 1974 which was only required for federal agencies to follow to ensure privacy and protection of personally identifiable information (PII). However, since 1974, in the United States other laws and regulations have been drafted and implemented, but there is still a gap in responding to current cyber related crime. The most recent cyber related law, according to NIST, was the NIST Small Business Cybersecurity Act, which came out in 2018, and provides guidelines to small businesses to ensure that cybersecurity risks are being identified and addressed accurately.[95]

During President Barack Obama's presidency three cybersecurity related bills were signed into order in December 2014. The first was the Federal Information Security Modernization Act of 2014, the second was the National Cybersecurity Protection Act of 2014, and the third was the Cybersecurity Enhancement Act of 2014. Although the Federal Information Security Modernization Act of 2014 was just an update of an older version of the act, it focused on the practices federal agencies were to abide by relating to cybersecurity. While the National Cybersecurity Protection Act of 2014 was aimed toward increasing the amount of information sharing that occurs across the federal and private sector to improve cybersecurity amongst the industries. Finally, the Cybersecurity Enhancement Act of 2014 relates to cybersecurity research and education.[96]

In April 2015, then-President Barack Obama released an executive order that allows the US to freeze the assets of convicted cybercriminals and block their economic activity within the United States.[97]

The European Union adopted cybercrime directive 2013/40/EU, which was elaborated upon in the Council of Europe's Convention on Cybercrime.[98]

It is not only the US and the European Union that have been introducing measures against cybercrime. On 31 May 2017, China announced that its new cybersecurity law was taking effect.[99]

In Australia, legislation to combat cybercrime includes the Criminal Code Act 1995, the Telecommunications Act 1997, and the Enhancing Online Safety Act 2015.

Penalties

Penalties for computer-related crimes in New York State can range from a fine and a short period of jail time for a Class A misdemeanor, such as unauthorized use of a computer, up to 3 to 15 years in prison for a Class C felony, such as computer tampering in the first degree.[100]

However, some former cybercriminals have been hired as information security experts by private companies due to their inside knowledge of computer crime, a phenomenon which theoretically could create perverse incentives. A possible counter to this is for courts to ban convicted hackers from using the internet or computers, even after they have been released from prison – though as computers and the internet become more and more central to everyday life, this type of punishment becomes more and more draconian. Nuanced approaches have been developed that manage cyber offenders' behavior without resorting to total computer or internet bans.[101] These approaches involve restricting individuals to specific devices which are subject to monitoring or searches by probation or parole officers.[102]

Awareness

Cybercrime is becoming more of a threat in our society. According to Accenture's State of Cybersecurity, security attacks increased 31% from 2020 to 2021. The number of attacks per company increased from 206 to 270. Due to this rising threat, the importance of raising awareness about measures to protect information and the tactics criminals use to steal that information is paramount. However, despite cybercrime becoming a mounting problem, many people are not aware of the severity of this problem. This could be attributed to a lack of experience and knowledge of technological issues. There are 1.5 million cyber-attacks annually, which means that there are over 4,000 attacks a day, 170 attacks every hour, or nearly three attacks every minute, with studies showing that only 16 percent of victims had asked the people who were carrying out the attacks to stop.[103] Comparitech's 2023 study shows that cybercrime victims have peaked to 71 million annually, which means there is a cyberattack every 39 seconds.[104] Anybody who uses the internet for any reason can be a victim, which is why it is important to be aware of how to be protected while online.

Intelligence

As cybercrime proliferated, a professional ecosystem evolved to support individuals and groups seeking to profit from cybercrime activities. The ecosystem has become quite specialized, and includes malware developers, botnet operators, professional cybercrime groups, groups specializing in the sale of stolen content, and so forth. A few of the leading cybersecurity companies have the skills and resources to follow the activities of these individuals and groups.[105] A wide variety of information that can be used for defensive purposes is available from these sources, for example, technical indicators such as hashes of infected files[106] and malicious IPs/URLs,[106] as well as strategic information profiling the goals and techniques of the profiled groups. Much of it is freely available, but consistent, ongoing access typically requires a subscription. Some in the corporate sector see a crucial role for artificial intelligence in the future development of cybersecurity.[107][108]

Interpol's Cyber Fusion Center began a collaboration with key cybersecurity players to distribute information on the latest online scams, cyber threats, and risks to internet users. Since 2017, reports on social engineering frauds, ransomware, phishing, and other attacks have been distributed to security agencies in over 150 countries.[109]

Spread of cybercrime

The increasing prevalence of cybercrime has resulted in more attention to computer crime detection and prosecution.

Hacking has become less complex as hacking communities disseminate their knowledge through the internet.[citation needed] Blogs and social networks have contributed substantially to information sharing, so that beginners can benefit from older hackers' knowledge and advice.

Furthermore, hacking is cheaper than ever. Before the cloud computing era, in order to spam or scam, one needed a variety of resources, such as a dedicated server; skills in server management, network configuration, and network maintenance; and knowledge of internet service provider standards. By comparison, a software-as-a-service for mail is a scalable and inexpensive bulk e-mail-sending service for marketing purposes that could be easily set up for spam.[110] Cloud computing could help cybercriminals leverage their attacks, whether brute-forcing a password, improving the reach of a botnet, or facilitating a spamming campaign.[111]

Agencies

See also

References

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Herrero, J., Torres, A., Vivas, P., & Urueña, A. (2022). Smartphone Addiction, Social Support, and Cybercrime Victimization: A Discrete Survival and Growth Mixture Model: Psychosocial Intervention. Psychosocial Intervention, 31(1), 59–66. https://doi.org/10.5093/pi2022a3

Further reading

Government resources