10 Crimes Made Possible by the Internet

Generally speaking, cybercrime involves a multitude of criminal activities carried out utilizing computers or the Internet. These offenses are committed worldwide by perpetrators ranging from sophisticated, state-sponsored divisions in countries like North Korea, Russia, and China — to that weird kid living in his parent’s basement across the street.  

Since its inception, personal computers have evolved into a life-changing mod con that allows us to do everything from watching movies to paying bills without ever leaving the couch. Criminals, however, are making the net more dangerous than shopping on Black Friday. It’s also a bit disheartening when the inventor of the world wide web is now warning of an imminent “digital dystopia.” 

On that bright ray of sunshine, here’s a rundown on some of the most darkest types of online wrongdoing.

10. Sextortion

As the illegitimate love child of extortion and revenge porn, sextortion occurs when a perpetrator threatens to distribute someone’s private or sensitive material online unless demands in the form of sexual favors or money are met. The crime may also threaten to harm the victims’ friends or relatives for a higher payout.

Criminals often target unsuspecting young people in chat rooms and attempt to record sexually explicit images and videos. Other techniques involve hacking into electronic devices such as cell phones and computers using malware to access personal files as well as controlling the web camera and microphone without consent.

Law enforcement investigators say organized gangs from overseas target victims from afar, making it much more difficult to stop. Likely locations include the Philippines, Ivory Coast and Morocco.

If you believe you’re a victim of sextortion, or know someone else who is, call your local FBI office or toll-free at 1-800-CALL-FBI.

9. Hate Speech

With a multitude of social media platforms to choose from, hate groups now have an inviting place to call home. From Neo-Nazis to ISIS, the Internet provides a safe harbor to distribute information that’s not only morally reprehensible but a danger to humanity at large. And as a bonus, it’s also a powerful recruiting tool. Join today!

Despite the recent surge in hate crimes, the slippery slope of free speech prevents any meaningful regulation from stopping the spread of racism, intolerance, and fear. Ironically, the very foundation of the U.S. Constitution is being abused to subvert democracy and deliverance from tyranny. So much for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

Comedian and political activist, Sacha Baron Cohen, recently blasted Big Tech in a speech organized by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a group devoted to fighting anti-Semitism. He called Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter “the greatest propaganda machine in history.” 

Baron Cohen urged the billionaire club dubbed the “Silicon Six” ( particularly Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg) to take more responsibility. “Your product is defective, you are obliged to fix it, no matter how much it costs and no matter how many moderators you need to employ,” Baron Cohen said. “Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach. Sadly, there will always be racists, misogynists, anti-Semites, and child abusers. But I think we could all agree that we should not be giving bigots and pedophiles a free platform to amplify their views and target their victims.”

On March 15, 2019, two consecutive terrorist shooting attacks occurred at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 people and wounding 49. The shooter, a self-described white supremacist, live-streamed the atrocity on Facebook, where it then spread across the Internet and was likely viewed millions of times.

8. 419

There’s a good chance that most people by now have received an email known as the “Nigerian Letter” or “419” (the country’s criminal code) scam. As the granddaddy of fraudulent internet schemes, the set up has seen several incarnations over the years, but the basic pitch goes something like this:

Dear Mr. Sir,

Hello my good friend, my name is Dr. Givmeur Monee. Please forgive my haste, but I’m wrytng about an urgent mater and can offer you $20,000,000 for your assistance. My cousin, a Nigerian Prince and the first African astronaut to moonwalk, is getting ready to blast off again into space. While he’s away, we need to deposit a substantial sum of money into a secure bank account.

And so on. 

Despite the absurdity (and notorious) premise, the ruse still manages to rake in the dough from naive victims. According to the FBI’s website, “Nigerian letter frauds combine the threat of impersonation fraud with a variation of an advance fee scheme in which a letter mailed, or emailed, from Nigeria offers the recipient the “opportunity” to share in a percentage of millions of dollars that the author—a self-proclaimed government official—is trying to transfer illegally out of Nigeria.”

Similar to phishing scams, experts point to several red-flag indicators:

  • The sender doesn’t know your name
  • There’s a sense of urgency
  • It’s poorly written with lots of misspelled words

7. Cyberbullying

In recent years, online bullying — often by adolescents targeting fellow their classmates at school — has become one of the most rampant violations committed on the Internet. The growth of social media puts many young people at risk of receiving threatening and humiliating messages or having hurtful comments or images posted online. 

The Pew Research states, “59% of U.S. teens have been bullied or harassed online, and a similar share says it’s a major problem for people their age. At the same time, teens mostly think teachers, social media companies, and politicians are failing at addressing this issue.”

The results can have damaging consequences leading to depression, anxiety, sleep difficulties, self-harm, and suicide. Students typically report reasons for being bullied, including physical appearance, race/ethnicity, gender, disability, religion, and sexual orientation

But like other crimes on this list, nobody seems to have any answers on how to effectively police or deter this growing trend. One might make that argument that kids will always be kids regardless of technology, and senseless cruelty is to be expected given their immature, not-yet-fully-developed brains. Perhaps. However, some groups are advocating for more action, such as better monitoring at schools and stiffer punishment. 

In 2006, a teenager from Dardenne Prairie, Missouri, named Megan Meier committed suicide by hanging three weeks before her 14th birthday. Meier’s parents demanded a criminal investigation and later learned that cyberbullying through the social networking website MySpace resulted in Megan’s death. The family has since established a foundation to provide online resources in the education and prevention of cyberbullying.

6. Revenge porn

Revenge porn is the sharing of sexual content without the subject’s consent—usually by a disgruntled ex-lover. Often it’s sent to specific groups of people (employers, family, friends, etc.) to cause the maximum distress. And it can indeed lead to isolation and job loss.

The Internet isn’t strictly necessary, of course. In 2014, a man sent his ex-girlfriend’s parents a Christmas card with a photo of their daughter in an orgy. But the Internet does make it easier. In fact, some sites have specialized in hosting it — sometimes even linking the victims’ real names to pornographic content online.

New laws to combat this problem are widely considered inadequate. While they ban the websites, they don’t ban revenge porn itself.

But the Internet has come up with a solution! Kind of… You can now upload your homemade porn to an app that’ll keep it secure. Not only will it encrypt your content to protect it from thieves/ISPs (and, presumably, the app’s developers); but any time you or your lover want to view the content, you’ll both have to input your passwords — a little like the launch keys for nukes.

5. Catfishing

Unfortunately, Catfishing isn’t the name of a folksy lifestyle magazine for anglers but rather the use of phony personas to deceive other people online. But we’re not just talking usernames here. Catfish personas are complex and compelling, weaving narratives that can last for several years. And all they really need to get started is someone else’s photos and the internet.   

The point, usually, is to live out personal fantasies — as revealed in Catfish (2010) and its spin-off MTV series. However, motives also include include bullying, entrapment, and financial gain. Three Chechen girls, for instance, convinced Islamic State to send them $3,300 by posing as eager recruits.

Like deep fakes and disinformation, catfishing is easier than ever. And most of the victims are vulnerable. One woman was driven to suicide by a string of catfish personas: first someone she’d known at school; then a British soap actor and fellow victim of harassment; then his kidnapper; then police investigating the kidnapping; then the actor’s brother; then the actor again, who claimed the kidnapping was a hoax by his harasser.

The catfish behind these personas, who turned out to be a woman herself, was eventually tracked down by police. In 2019, she was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison for stalking six victims in total.

4. Doxing

The public release of personally identifying information (i.e. “documents” or “dox”) has long been taboo on the internet. In the 1990s, hackers lived in fear of their rivals “dropping dox” in IRC.

Nowadays, billions of us leave sensitive data online — on social media, blogs, forums, business sites, online games, networked databases, and so on. And it can be gathered with relative ease. In fact, some of the most sensitive data (real names, photos, phone numbers, home and work addresses) are probably the easiest to find.

Doxing (or doxxing, if you prefer) isn’t even illegal, not in itself. It’s the motivation that makes it a crime, be it harassment, blackmail, incitement to violence, or some other nefarious scheme. However, the law tends to be murkier when it comes to social justice.

In 2017, for instance, photos of racist protesters in Charlottesville were dumped on Twitter and identified by other users. Targets reported job loss, alienation from friends and family, and personal threats and attacks. In the aftermath, opinion was split over whether the doxing was justified—especially given that some of the targets were misidentified or misrepresented.

This is the trouble with doxing — and with mob justice in general: It’s all too easy to get the wrong person and often too late to clear their name later. Hacktivist collective Anonymous knows this well. In 2013, responding to the Boston Marathon bombing, they wrongfully doxed a depressed college student who was later found dead in a river.

3. DDoS attacks

DDoS stands for distributed denial of service. It involves overwhelming websites with hijacked traffic to make them temporarily unavailable. Commonly, it’s used for extortion, demanding a ransom from the owners to stop. But it may also be used to block the release of important or sensitive information. Common targets include activist groups and nonprofits, banks, businesses, news websites, and government agencies.

DDoS attacks rely on networks (botnets) of sometimes millions of individual computers — zombie systems hijacked by hackers using malware like a trojan horse virus. The last couple of years have seen the largest attacks of this kind. In 2018, GitHub was brought down by 1.35 terabits of traffic per second. And in 2019, an unnamed Imperva client received 500 million packets per second (estimated to be the equivalent of up to 3.4 terabits per second).

The hackers themselves are untraceable. But they’re often acting on someone else’s behalf. Just $150 on the darknet can buy a week-long DDoS attack, whereas the cost to some targets (e.g. in lost business or damaged reputations) can be upwards of $40,000 per hour.

Of course, DDoS attacks needn’t involve hackers at all. A popular enough cause could attract millions of willing participants, and it’s doubtful it would count as a crime. Hence, in 2017, a scheme was hatched to overload on Inauguration Day. The only reason it didn’t work, it seems, was the White House’s DDoS protection. Many key government websites now have this — even while the government itself keeps launching these attacks against others.

2. Mass surveillance

Among the ugliest abuses of the internet is without a doubt mass surveillance, allowing governments to track, analyze, and file away the contact we make with each other. It covers, among other things, our internet usage, emails and messaging, phone calls, and financial transactions. It places innocent people on terrorist watch lists and in jail without so much as a trial.

Yet, as advocates maintain, it’s supposed to protect us from crime. So what’s it doing on this list?

Well, it’s illegal. US courts ruled as much on the NSA’s collection of phone records. And the agency’s stubborn lack of transparency continues to draw ire from lawmakers. Meanwhile, in the UK, GCHQ (the NSA’s British equivalent) routinely flouts national regulations, as well as the European Convention on Human Rights.

Bulk data collection isn’t even that useful—not for the prevention of crime. As experts point out, it consistently fails to prevent school shootings, bombings, terrorist attacks, and other crimes planned in advance.

NUMBER ONE: Misinformation

The legendary Irish satirist Jonathan Swift once wrote, “Falsehood flies and the Truth comes limping after it.” Three hundred years later, technology has rapidly changed, but human nature hasn’t. 

In a landmark study recently published in Science Magazine, the comprehensive report illustrates how social media not only relays messages faster than ever but amplifies false news much quicker and deeper than the truth. And we’re talking Usain Bolt vs. a banana slug kind of disparity.

By looking at nearly the entire lifespan of Twitter, the study found that falsehoods are six times more likely to go viral than accurate reporting. Researchers concluded that the degree of novelty and the emotional reactions of recipients are most likely responsible for the differences observed. In other words, lies are alluring and fun. Facts aren’t.

While a high profile event such as Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election is well-known, the threat of false information is a worldwide concern, affecting every level of political, economic, and social well-being.

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