Cyber criminals have helped to facilitate child grooming and sexual abuse, hundreds of obscene publications, blackmail, and threats to kill in Warwickshire over the past three years a major study has found.
Freedom of Information requests by Johnston Press investigations and the Leamington Courier Series have revealed that officers in the county have investigated 880 cyber, or what are termed ‘cyber enabled’, crimes over the past three years.
The number subject to a police probe has risen steadily from 60 in 2014/15 to 591 in 2016/17 - almost a tenfold increase.
Of the 880 investigated, 91 resulted in people being charged with an offence.
A former intelligence officer at GCHQ, which leads Britain’s cyber defence capabilities, told JP Investigations that the UK and other developed countries are “on the losing end of an arms race” in which organised crime groups and hostile states are deploying powerful online tools to net million of pounds a day and disrupt daily life with attacks such as the ransomware assault which earlier this year disrupted the NHS.
The findings follow warnings made only last month by Britain’s public spending watchdog that online fraud has been “overlooked by government, law enforcement and industry”.
The National Audit Office found that only one in every 150 police officers in England and Wales specialises in fraud despite the fact it is now the most prevalent crime in Britain, with the vast majority of those offences committed online.
The Government itself has acknowledged that some police forces are doing too little to tackle cyber crime, with one minister citing the Game of Thrones television series by warning “winter is coming” concerning online crime and fraud.
Security minister Ben Wallace called on victims of cyber crime to report offences but revealed that seven police forces have no dedicated fraud or cyber crime unit.
In little noticed comments earlier month, Mr Wallace said: “This thing is only going to go one way, it is growing and the barriers to entry for cyber fraud are lowering on an almost daily basis.”
Data obtained by the investigation unit suggests that the true scale of the suffering caused by online crime - whose victims range from doctors targeted by identity thieves to a grandmother defrauded of her life savings - is indeed vastly under-reported.
A key development in the last 12 months has been the increase in so-called “as-a-service” online attacks whereby offenders ranging from mafia-style crime syndicates to teenagers wanting to disrupt their schools can commission an off-the-shelf cyber attack via the internet without needing the technical knowledge that would have been previously required for such an assault.
JP Investigations has been told of one incident where a 14-year-old in the north west of England paid £10 on the Dark Web to commission an attack on his school’s internet portal simply to avoid doing his homework. The attack caused significant disruption to school’s computer network.
Based on responses from 30 out of 45 police forces across the UK, the number of cyber crimes - defined as a criminal act involving the misuse of computers as well as conventional crimes committed over the internet - rose from 21,307 in 2015/16 to 39,339 in 2016/17, an increase of 86 per cent.
Some of that increase can be explained by changes to crime recording rules.
But experts agree that they also coincide with a dramatic increase in activity by cyber criminals. The number of variants of ransomware - the type of virus which encrypts users’ data and will only return it in return for a payment in an electronic currency such as Bitcoin - offered by hacking gangs grew tenfold between the end of 2015 and last autumn.
The figures are evidence of a world where the enmeshing of technology with almost every interaction comes at an increasing price as people fall victim to crime that targets basic human vulnerabilities.
Among the offences investigated by police last year as having been committed at least in part over the internet were crimes of bigamy, conspiracy to murder and kidnapping.
The Government last year announced it will spend £1.9bn as part of an updated cyber security strategy which included the launch of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), part of GCHQ dedicated to helping thwart high-level attacks such as the Wannacry ransomware attack on the NHS.
But experts say that while the NCSC is adequately staffed, its specialists would be unable to halt an all-out attack on Britain and the UK as a whole suffers from a chronic shortage of technical knowledge required to combat cyber crime.
Detective Inspector, Emma Wright, of Warwickshire Police and West Mercia Police Economic Crime Unit, said: “We now live in an online world, where the vast majority of day-to-day tasks are completed online. Naturally, this has resulted in the trend of crimes following this pattern, with more criminals now using the internet to commit or facilitate their crimes.
“These crimes can include offences relating to computer misuse, such as distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, hacking, malware and ransomware. They can also include crimes committed using a computer or the internet, such as fraud or blackmail, where the contact is made online.
“Warwickshire Police is committed to raising awareness of cyber crime amongst both members of the public and the business community and will continue to support our cyber protect strategy. We are committed to tackling fraud and have both specialist investigators (within the ECU) and local investigators who deal with these types of crime. In cases where we experience large scale cyber crimes we also have the option to gain support for the investigation via the National Cyber Crime Centre and the Regional Cyber Crime Unit, which we will continue to make good use of, when appropriate.
“Cyber crime knows no geographic boundaries so tracking these crimes is challenging. However, significant steps have been taken to help meet this challenge.”