Criminal Justice Degree Guide: Computer Crime
According to the U.S. federal government’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), the amount of reported money lost by victims of cyber crime was nearly $560 million, over twice the amount in 2008. The top crimes were 1) failed online transactions (a vendor not delivering a product, etc.), 2) identity theft, and 3) fraud (credit card, auction, etc.). However, the problem of computer crime is far worse than these financial statistics imply. Between 1996 and 2007, the FBI opened over 20,000 cases investigating child pornography and the sexual exploitation of minors online. Cyber attacks, phishing, piracy, and many other crimes that did not even exist 30 years ago round out the array of criminal activities that are exclusive to cyberspace.
The sections that follow serve as introduction to computer crime, providing a general definition of what constitutes such acts before moving on to describe each of the major forms of cyber crime in turn, and listing major resources that delve into more detail. Throughout this page are links to other authoritative and/or comprehensive websites as well, so that students, parents, teachers, and anyone wary of how their computers can serve as conduits for criminals might stay informed.
What is Computer Crime?
Although computers insulate us from crime in the traditional sense, especially violence, the online medium is nevertheless rampant with theft, fraud, exploitation of minors, and harassment. Indeed, the safety and remoteness of cyberspace only serves to embolden criminals. Besides targeting individuals, offenders also go after businesses, causing millions of dollars of damage through scams, disruption of networks, and outright larceny. Unsurprisingly, this array of phenomena has grown as the Internet has grown, so that today most sizable law enforcement agencies have a special cyber crime divisions, including the FBI, and computer forensics is a common specialty in universities. As a good starting point for newcomers, an online book on the subject, A Guide to Computer Crime from Legal Practitioner, provides basic definitions of all the common types of offenses and other essential concepts.
Types of Computer Crime
The following are some of the most widespread offenses that count as computer crimes. Each entry leads to a different resource that may have additional information about other crimes as well.
- Identity Theft involves the acquisition of a person’s credit card number, passwords, Social Security Number, or other data that allows the offender to remotely impersonate the victim in order to withdraw money, make online purchases, or gain access to protected information. This explanation comes from the Federal Trade Commission’s website.
- “Intrusions” is the FBI’s term for various forms of malicious software, which can be malware, worms, viruses, trojan horses, fake anti-virus software, and may other covert programs, although this category also includes hacking: the illegal entry into a secure database or network. An essay, Malicious Software, by Marshall D. Abrams and Harold J. Podell from the 2011 Annual Computer Security Applications Conference explains more.
- Online Predation can take many forms, but often involves the exploitation of minors through the distribution or possession of child pornography, the use of instant messaging or e-mail to illicit sex, or harassment through vandalism, sabotage, or slander (setting up a fake Facebook page, for instance). More information can be found in A Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety by the FBI.
- Phishing is a common scam, especially practiced through e-mail, in which a cyber criminal sends a message that appears to be from the receiver’s bank or business, or a government agency, such as the IRS. They often use these organizations’ logos and design the message to appear the same as legitimate e-mail from the company. Once they have the recipient’s trust, they then ask for money, bank account numbers, and other personal information. The National Consumers League’s Internet Fraud Watch explains more.
- Piracy is one of the more controversial subjects, as limited file-sharing — distributing songs, movies, video games, and so on for free — is publicly advocated by some groups (see the Swedish Pirate Party, a real political group). Nevertheless, the ease with which digital media can be copied and downloaded makes the practice widespread and damaging to corporate profits. The government’s policy, and news about the issue, is provided at StopFakes.gov.
These are, of course, not all the crimes associated with cyberspace and the Internet, but they are the few that are inevitable in any discussion of computer crime. For more information, the Crime Scene Investigation Network maintains a section with separate articles about all the offenses described above.
- The Bureau of Justice Statistics: Cybercrime presents data collected by the National Computer Security Survey, who conducted its initial pilot survey in 2001 and then conducted a second study in 2005. The findings indicate that two-thirds of businesses had encountered cybercrime that year and that the majority reported losses of more than $10,000 as a result.
- Computer Crime & Intellectual Property Section is simply a section of the U.S. Department of Justice’s website that lists news items involving the two titular issues in chronological order. Details can be read by clicking on the headlines, and are available in PDF format.
- The FBI: Cyber Crime division provides information to computer users about how to protect themselves against nearly all of the crimes described above, and summarizes some of the federal task forces and initiatives to crack down on criminal activity online. The agency’s four “Key Priorities” are intrusions, online predation, piracy and copyright infringement, and scams.
- Help Net Security specializes in news stories and advice articles about various forms of computer crime, including updates on especially prevalent malware and vulnerabilities in popular software. The information on the site can be filtered by topic (malware, opinions, etc.), operating system (Windows, Linux, etc.), and many other criteria.
- The International Journal of Forensic Computer Science is one of several journals that focus on digital investigations, except that this one provides its archived issues online for free in PDF format. Articles, which cover everything from malware to child pornography, go back to 2006.
- The Internet Crime Complaint Center is a collaborative effort between several U.S. government agencies, including the FBI, National White Collar Crime Center, and the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Center’s purpose is to give anyone (even people outside the U.S.) a means by which they can alert law enforcement of possible computer crimes. The IC3 report that provided the statistics for the intro of this page can be found here.