Have COVID-19 lockdowns fostered a ‘cybercrime economy’?

A team of researchers at Cambridge Cybercrime Centre have issued a warning to the public advising individuals to take extra care before buying face masks or COVID-19 testing kits online, as cybercrime has increased.

Cambridge University researchers have been using innovative techniques to analyse large quantities of data collected by the Cambridge Cybercrime Centre from underground forums, chat channels and marketplaces used by cybercrime communities.

In a briefing paper written for Police Scotland, the research team says that the increase in cybercrime indicates a social change put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers have indicated that the recent pandemic has fostered a ‘cybercrime economy’.

Tracking cybercrime using data analysis

The Cambridge Cybercrime Centre has tracked a three-fold increase in ‘denial of service’ attacks, with numbers ranging between 12,000-30,000 attacks per day. These attacks can be used to knock others offline, a tactic often used by people cheating at online games.

Now, we are more vulnerable to these attacks because we are spending much more time online as for work, school, and entertainment. Dr Ben Collier from the Cambridge Cybercrime Centre said that this vulnerability is increased because “many internet users, including adolescents and young adults, are currently confined to home with no school or work for much of the day. The increased boredom they feel may well be a key driver of online petty crime.”

In their paper, researchers, Collier, Dr Shane Horgan from Edinburgh Napier University, Dr Richard Jones from the University of Edinburgh, and Dr Lynsay Shepherd from Abertay University, also voice their concerns about the potential rise in the volume of other online danger. These include online bullying, stalking, and harassment.

Their paper is aims to offer guidance on the policing of cybercrime to Police Scotland, however its findings have relevance across the UK. While the UK has a sophisticated and innovative cybersecurity apparatus particularly at the national level, it currently lacks sufficient capability to police an increase in ‘volume’ cybercrime offences.

The risk of cybercrime

During the beginning of the UK’s lockdown, scammers sent fake texts, claiming to be from the UK’s HM Revenue & Customs, telling recipients they were going to be fined £250 for leaving their homes more than once a day. ​The researchers have expressed concerns that the rollout of the prospective NHS contact-tracing app has the potential to generate clear risks for those vulnerable to fraud. They warn that such people may be conned into handing over sensitive personal information by fake apps or scam texts purporting to be from the NHS.

“We’re also seeing some general repurposing of existing cybercrime. For example, there have long been fake online shops, but now instead of selling clothes, they are selling face masks or bogus ‘cures’ for the coronavirus.

“Anxiety over serious economic problems – such as job losses and business closures – may be prompting some people to step up existing harmful online activity as a means of generating income,” commented Collier.

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