How Cybercriminals Are Different from Regular Criminals

An Interview with a Criminology Professor from Cincinnati

The study of Cybercriminology is still a very young social science. Professor Joe Nedelec of the University of Cincinnati is one of those researchers pushing to expand our understanding of why hackers and online criminals do what they do.  

Professor Nedelec is with the Criminal Justice program at the U of C. He met with About.com to tell us more about the cybercriminal mind. Here is a transcript of that interview.

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Cybercriminals Do Not Equal Street Criminals

How Cybercriminals Differ from Regular Street Thugs
How Cybercriminals Differ from Regular Street Thugs. Schwanberg / Getty

About.com: "Prof. Nedelec: what makes a cybercriminal tick and how are they different from regular street criminals?"

Prof. Nedelec

Researching cybercriminals is tough.  Very few of them are caught, so we can't go to jails or prisons to interview them like we can with street criminals.  Furthermore, the Internet provides a great deal of anonymity (at least for those who really know how to hide) and cybercriminals can remain undetected.  As a result, research on cybercrime is in its infancy, so there aren't many well-established or replicated findings but some patterns have emerged. For example, researchers note that the physical separation of the offender and the victim is a key reason that some cybercriminals are able to justify their criminal acts.  It's easier to think that harm is not being done when the victim isn't right in front of them.  Many researchers have noted that some cybercriminals, particularly malicious hackers, are motivated simply by the challenge of besting an online system.  Furthermore, qualitative data has indicated that some cybercriminals chose to use their skills for crime because they could make more money than in legitimate employment.  

While there is overlap in terms of the causes of behavior between cybercriminals and off-line or street criminals, there is considerable difference as well.  For example, people who are more impulsive are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior than those who are less impulsive.  However, this finding does not always apply well to cybercrime.  It takes a lot of patience and technical skill to successfully engage in numerous types of criminal activities online. This is much different from the street criminal whose technical expertise is typically not very in-depth.  To support this assertion, research has shown that people who engage in crime online are less likely to also engage in criminal acts offline.  Again, this research is in its infancy and it will be interesting to see what future investigators are able to discover about this increasingly important topic.  

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How Do You Attract the Attention of Cybercriminals?

Why Do Some People Attract More Cybercrime Attention than Others?
Why Do Some People Attract More Cybercrime Attention than Others?. Ryan / Getty

About.com: "What do some users do that attracts the negative attention of cybercriminals?"

 

Prof. Nedelec

In studying victims of cybercrime, researchers have noted a number of interesting findings.  For example, personality characteristics like conscientiousness appear to be related to cyber-victimization such that those who are less conscientious have an increased probability of being the victim of cybercrime.  Such findings are why many companies and organizations require their employees to frequently change their passwords.  Lower technical skills and a lack of knowledge of the Internet has also been linked to cyber-victimization.  These victim characteristics lead to the success of practices such as phishing and social engineering.  ​Cybercriminals have moved beyond the simple 'Nigerian Prince' emails (although we all still get these) to emails that are almost exact replicas of messages one would receive from their bank or credit card companies.  Cybercriminals rely on the inability of victims to detect a fake message and exploit these 'human vulnerabilities'. 

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Cybercriminologist Advice for About.com Readers

How to Avoid Becoming a Cybervictim
How to Avoid Becoming a Cybervictim. Peopleimages.com / Getty

About.com: "What advice do you have for people to safely use social media and participate in online culture?"

Prof. Nedelec

I often address safe online strategies with my students by having them think of how the Internet would be if it were 'real life'.  I ask them if they would ever consider wearing a t-shirt that clearly says something racist or homophobic or sexist for the entire world to see, or if they would use the combination '1234' on their garage door, bike lock, and phone among other questions related to problematic online behavior.  The answer to these questions is always a resounding "No, of course not!".  But research indicates that people engage in these types of behaviors online all the time.

Thinking of one's online behavior as 'real-life' behaviors helps to suppress the urge to exploit anonymity online and to also recognize the long-term consequences of posting potentially harmful material online.  In terms of strong passwords, digital security experts recommend the use of password managers and two-step verification for online accounts.  Increased awareness of tactics used by cybercriminals is also crucial.  For example, recently cybercriminals have focused on filing false tax returns using stolen social security numbers.  One way to avoid being the victim of such tactics is to create an account on the IRS's webpage.  Other ways to avoid cyber-victimization include being diligent about monitoring your bank and credit card accounts either through actively checking or being alerted when purchases are made. In terms of phishing emails and similar scams, most banks and credit card companies will not send emails with embedded links, and with other messages users should look to see where a link in an email actually goes (i.e., the URL) before clicking on it.  Finally, as with some of the oldest scams that have nothing to do with the Internet, the old adage "If it seems too good to be true, it probably is" has relevance to online scams and frauds (including texting scams).  Maintaining healthy skepticism when viewing information online is a great strategy to employ.  Doing so will prevent cybercriminals from exploiting the weakest link in digital security: people.  

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Why Do You Study Cybercrime?

Prof. Joe Nedelec, U of Cincinnati Criminology Dept.
Prof. Joe Nedelec, U of Cincinnati Criminology Dept. Joe Nedelec

About.com: "Prof. Nedelec, tell us about your cybercrime research and field.  Why is it interesting to you?  How does it compare to other social sciences?"

Prof. Nedelec

My primary interest as a biosocial criminologist is to assess the various ways in which individual differences can impact human behavior, including antisocial behavior. My research into cybercrime is driven by the same interest: why are some people more or less likely to engage in cybercrime or be victimized by cybercrime?  Most experts have just looked at the technical side of this issue but more and more research is starting to focus on the human behavior side of cybercrime.

As a criminologist, I've come to recognize that cybercrime presents the criminal justice system, government agencies (domestically and internationally), and criminology as an academic discipline with considerable challenges.  Issues related to cybercrime and digital security are so novel that they challenge the traditional ways in which we as a society, really as a species, have dealt with antisocial or criminal behaviors in the past. The fantastically unique characteristics of the online environment - such as anonymity and the breakdown of geographical barriers - are almost completely alien to traditional criminal justice agents and processes.  These challenges, though daunting, also present the opportunity for creativity and growth in research, international relations, and the study of human behaviors, including online behaviors.  Part of the reason I find this field so fascinating are the unique challenges that it brings.       

 

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Where to Go If You Want to Learn More About Cybercriminals

Resources for styudying cybercrime
Resources for styudying cybercrime. Bronstein / Getty

About.com: "What resources and links do you recommend for people who are interested in learning more about cyber criminology and victimology?"

Prof. Nedelec

Blogs such as Brian Krebs's krebsonsecurity.com are excellent sources for experts and novices alike.  For those who are more academically inclined, there are a small number of online peer-reviewed journals that deal with cyber criminology and victimology (e.g., International Journal of Cyber Criminology www.cybercrimejournal.com) as well as individual articles in numerous interdisciplinary journals.  There is an increasing number of good books, both academic and non-academic, related to cybercrime and digital security.  I have my students read Majid Yar's Cybercrime and Society as well as Thomas Holt's Crime On-line both of which are on the academic side.  Krebs's Spam Nation is non-academic and is a fascinating look behind the scenes of the proliferation of spam and illegal online pharmacies that accompanied the explosion of email.  Many interesting videos and documentaries can be found from sources such as the TED Talks webpage (www.ted.com/playlists/10/who_are_the_hackers), the BBC, and cyber security/hacker conventions such as DEF CON (www.defcon.org).