Peeping Toms and Online Scams

In 2014, police discovered 11,000 images of young women on a computer in Lewisham, South-East London. The man in possession of the images had downloaded an app called “icamsource”, which enabled him to spy on two women through their webcams from the comfort of his own home. The app allowed the 30-year-old former Goldsmith student to secretly watch whenever his victims were online. The suspended sentence he received is believed to be the first time anyone in the UK has been convicted of cyber-stalking. It seems technology has made it easier for peeping toms to engage in illegal behaviour from a safe distance.

The widespread use of technology has made the world a smaller and more interconnected place and in 2014 the number of active mobile devices and human beings actually crossed over somewhere around the 7.19 billion mark. There’s much to be excited about as smartphones get smarter and laptops become ever more sophisticated but as the opening story demonstrates there’s a darker side to be explored and – hopefully – guarded against

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series routinely takes a satirically dark look at modern society and the unexpected consequences of technology. The episode ‘Shut Up and Dance’ shows a young man being blackmailed after being recorded on his webcam watching child pornography. The blackmailers push him to meet a fellow blackmail victim in a hotel room, rob a bank, and kill an equally guilty opponent. The main technological platforms used to blackmail are the Internet and mobile. A GPS tracker was also used to track the man’s car as he drove to the bank. This episode intends to have a profound effect on the way people deal with computer resources because this type of blackmail can happen to anyone with a computer.

The above is fiction but webcam users are generally unaware of how exposed they are, especially those who don’t tend to use the webcam feature. The National Crime Agency aims to help victims of webcam blackmail, otherwise known as ‘Sextortion’. They have mentioned on their website that, “These webcam videos are recorded by the criminals who then threaten to share the images with the victims’ friends and family. This can make the victims feel extremely ashamed and embarrassed and, tragically, here in the UK at least four young men have taken their own lives after being targeted in this way.”

Those with more romantic intentions are also at risk from lonely heart fraudsters who befriend victims by posing as the ideal partner and talk to their target for weeks, months and sometimes years on platforms such as Tinder and Facebook. They tend to borrow money – often large amounts – which they obviously have no intention in paying back. Once the deceit is revealed it can lead to broken hearts, financial ruin and sometimes worse. In one recent case, a man took his own life after it was revealed he was being conned by fraudsters online. Ian Doney had been chatting with his ‘potential’ partner on Facebook since the summer of 2015 and had been sending money to cater her ‘needs’.

The motives behind catfishing are more blurred and often less targeted on financial gain but the effects can still be traumatic. In February 2017, there were calls for catfishing to be made illegal and Anna Rowe even created a petition calling for its ban (after discovering the man she had been talking to on Tinder for over 14 months had been entirely fake) “The current law will not find his actions a criminal offence. That’s why I’m calling for creating fake profiles for the intent to use people for sex to be a crime”, Anna states in her petition, “It should be a crime under the Fraud Act, Communications Act and Sex Offences Act and used to be until 2003 when it was removed when laws were replaced.” Meanwhile, Catherine Barnes, a psychology doctoral student from Middlesex University told Modern Magazine “This category of behaviour can have a very distressing effect on victims because they become so attached to a person online and this can have a huge negative psychological effect on them once they find out the person was never real.”

Identity theft is another growing area of online crime and in April 2017, a news report stated that most of the personal information needed by criminals to steal identities could be easily accessed from victim’s Facebook and other social media profiles. Information such as name, date of birth and address is used to access bank accounts and mobile phone contracts in the victim’s name. Modern day technology provides easy access to information as it can be developed anytime anywhere.

In 2010, a man was found guilty of hacking people by sending out 50 million spam emails that included attachments where people would click on and their information would be easily accessible to him, like CV’s, medical letters, and intimate pictures and videos. His defender, Simon Ward, said “Anderson was motivated by ‘the feeling of power that comes from the knowledge that you have control over something that others don’t know you have the control of’. This could show how much the Internet has an impact on crime. You can be anyone you want to be behind the screen and the victims are completely oblivious and this gives a satisfaction to criminals.

Though hacking is a popular method used by criminals to access sensitive information, another way of doing it is by sending emails that appear to be from legitimate companies directly asking for personal information. A collective tax scam is circulating through the Internet that claims to be HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and offers a tax rebate or penalty and requests payment information. HMRC have made it clear on their website that “HMRC will never send notifications of a tax rebate/refund by email, or ask you to disclose personal or payment information by email.” They also added a list of email addresses that are commonly used by scammers in order to prevent any more fraudulent behaviour.

So where do we go from here to protect web users? more regulations and tighter control of the net? Governments across the world have always been looking at ways to police the net and will often sell the idea of more control under the guise of protecting its citizens. Strict web policing isn’t the answer but rather it’s through us as individuals to be savvier. As we develop as a society with modern technology, our instincts improve and we become better at recognising scam artists and understanding that “HMRC will never ask you to disclose personal or payment information by email.”