Friday, February 02, 2007

The Obstacles Facing Cyber Law Enforcement

By Coenraad De Beer

I recently had an interesting encounter with a specific individual while following a lead on a money laundry scam. I am not going into any details of this encounter but this person completely misunderstood my intentions as a pursuer of law and order in the digital world and jumped to all kinds of conclusions. Once again this made it clear to me that many people is under the false impression that fighting cyber crime is an easy task.

The online community is cruel and ruthless leaving no margin of error for anyone. Once you make a bona fide mistake you get crucified immediately. It is because of this general attitude among many people in social communities, that people jump to unfair and unjustified conclusions. Most participants of these communities are used to this behaviour and are not bothered by it too much. Most of these unjustified remarks often cause embarrassment for the comment maker, which is well deserved, because you should take the consequences of your actions for speaking out loud without thinking. Where am I going with this? What does this have to do with fighting cyber crime?

Let me explain with an example: When a big company like Microsoft cause a security risk for users of Internet Explorer out of negligence, you can be sure that the press (including the online community) will throw some big stones at them. This response is justified because the safety of innocent users is put at risk because of the negligence of a respectful organisation. But when Microsoft makes a remark that is misunderstood by some people, without causing any security threats because of this ill formulated remark, why should they be crucified? Microsoft is run by people and people make mistakes. If the community wants to rant and rave about something, then find something that deserves some ranting and raving and stop wasting time on things that can be excused. The company has to waste valuable resources to put out the fires caused by this overreaction instead of using those resources to improve the security of their products. No, I am not a Microsoft prophet, I am simply using them as an example.

Investigating spam and determining the origin of a scam letter is not as simple as tracking an IP address. Most people think so, but that is because they never really tried to locate a spammer on their own after being spammed. It is very easy to forge an e-mail header and that makes it almost impossible to locate the real sender of the e-mail. Even if the header is not forged, you never know whether it is a case of identity theft. Computer criminals hack into e-mail accounts, they hijack web sites and use it to their advantage under the identity of an innocent victim. This enables them to operate undetectable by moving from one account to another. Jurisdictional constraints makes it is hard for federal organisations of one country to prosecute crimes committed in another crime, not even to speak of locating the criminal.

Abuse departments of hosting companies and service providers are so swamped with so many daily reports of spam and network abuse that it is impossible for them to respond to each and every spam report individually. It obviously creates the impression that they do not really take action against the guilty parties. Of course, some companies appear to have an abuse department, but it is only a front to make people believe that they take action against spammers. This discourages people from reporting cyber crime and it effectively allows cyber criminals to operate in the open without the risk of getting caught.

People take cyber crime lightly, cyber crime is being handled as crime committed in another dimension, a dimension not regulated by law. Cyber crime is just like any other crime committed in the normal world, the only difference comes in the methods of investigation. Cyber swindlers are real life criminals, they should never be underestimated. The fact that they operate behind a computer screen makes no difference. Law enforcement agencies do not really care about the person robbed from a couple of dollars, they only pursue the big fish. Unfortunately this is how most scammers operate. They steal a bit from one victim, they steal a bit from another victim, they steal a bit from hundreds of helpless victims and pocked thousands of dollars in the end. Law enforcement agencies will take this crime more serious if everyone starts to report it to their local police department. Sooner or later they will realise that something has to be done. Many police departments are also not equipped to handle digital evidence effectively and many police officers still do not have the skills to conduct proper cyber crime investigations.

Cyber crime is very volatile and cannot always be solved using conventional methods, so I appeal to the online community not to question the unconventional methods of cyber crime investigators. At least they are doing something about an epidemic that is ignored by many influential and powerful organisations.

About the Author
Coenraad is webmaster and founder of Cyber Top Cops, leaders in Internet security, prevention of online fraud and educating users against online scams and malicious software. You can report scams to them for investigation by using their Report Spam page.

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