Cyber fraud is on the rise
While large organisations often have defence barriers, individuals are largely left to fend for themselves © Alamy Stock Photo

The jump in internet usage and homeworking prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic is opening new channels for online criminals, who have taken advantage of weak cyber security to inflict both financial and psychological damage to victims.

In the 12 months to June 2020, incidents of fraud and computer misuse in England and Wales rose from 4.84m incidents to 5.94m year-on-year, according to the Office for National Statistics. For every 1,000 people, there were 94 victims of fraud and 35 of computer misuse, up from 82 and 21 respectively in the previous 12-month period. 

“People are much more focused on using IT to communicate so there are more opportunities for fraud and cyber crime. It’s got a lot worse,” says Mark Button, director of the centre for counter fraud studies at the University of Portsmouth. 

While large organisations and institutions often have sophisticated defence barriers in place against these attacks, individuals are largely left to fend for themselves.

From phishing to social media hacks, “the average member of the public is not equipped, skilled or has the resources to deal with that situation”, says Rory Innes, founder and chief executive of The Cyber Helpline, a volunteer organisation run by cyber security experts.

Since the pandemic struck, the number of victims contacting the helpline has quadrupled. “Before the first lockdown, we were probably handling 100 cases per month on average, and then post March, it’s been somewhere between 380 and 450 . . . We just saw this immediate jump.”

Support for victims is complicated by the personal and psychological nature of much online crime, which is often part of a wider problem such as domestic abuse. “Twenty-two per cent of our cases are cyberstalking and online harassment, so these are personal issues like domestic abuse,” says Mr Innes, who often partners with specialist charities to provide support for these cases.

Sophie Mortimer, manager at the Revenge Porn Helpline, says “sexploitation” cases have risen since the pandemic. These involve publishing sexual images — or the false threat of publishing sexual images — of the victim and using them as a form of financial or social blackmail. “It’s always been a consistent 13 per cent of our caseload, but in the first lockdown it rose to nearly 20 per cent and now is about 18 per cent. We’ve seen twice the number of cases we saw last year,” she adds.

Such cyber crimes can leave victims with lasting psychological scars, says Folami Prehaye, founder of the Victims of Image Crime website. “You’ve got the emotional turmoil to deal with, that doesn’t go away straightaway, sometimes that takes years. You’ve got all that self-blame and it’s awful,” says Ms Prehaye, who established the VOIC website to support other victims after her ex-partner shared intimate photos of her on Facebook and porn websites.

Another consequence can be a fear of technology, or “cyber trauma”, which can leave victims isolated and unable to carry out simple online tasks. “I deleted Facebook and most victims do the exact same thing, they in fact delete their whole online life, and you can feel very isolated because the world pretty much lives online,” says Ms Prehaye. “Trust is something that's broken and trust covers everything.”

Small-scale scams can be no less damaging. “Even in a case where it’s someone’s name, address, date of birth, and email that’s taken — you’d probably consider that “small-scale” fraud — but in the right hands it can lead to phishing emails that then result in a bigger fraud,” says Richard Forrest, senior associate at Hayes Connor solicitors, which specialises in data breaches. “It enables someone to get their foot in the door. It doesn't allow them to take the finance in the first instance but it allows them to maybe send the email that can lead to that further down the line.”

Mr Forrest says it is common for victims’ legal claims to include medical evidence recommending they undergo cognitive behavioural therapy. “If your personal or financial details are infiltrated, if fraudulent activity is carried out, it can impact on someone's credit score, and that can lead to problems with remortgaging, getting a credit card . . . The knock-on effect of that in terms of mental health can really snowball far beyond what you initially perceive as a financial loss,” he says. 

Victims can go to the police, but the authorities are often unable to help — either because they do not have the resources, or the electronic trail falls outside national jurisdiction.

“There’s a shortage of cyber security professionals in the UK and the global market,” says Mr Innes. “And the pace of change [of cyber crimes] has been really fast . . . It’s relatively difficult to take a police officer or someone non-technical and make them understand this space.”

“If you look at the statistics, it’s a few dozen each year that get prosecuted for computer misuse while there are millions of incidents,” says Mr Button. “If criminals think there is a low risk of getting caught, you’re always going to get people who are tempted to do it.”

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