Cyber crimes rose in 2011, thanks to the exploding popularity of smart phones. Phones that allow text messages and netsurfing have played a part in a rise in identity theft and online scams.
Overall, more than 314,000 complaints of cyber crimes were logged in 2011, an increase of 3.4% from the previous year. According to a report from the Internet Crime Complaint Center, California was first among the states to report cyber crimes, with 34,169, while Texas was third overall. The Center works in partnership with the FBI, the Department of Justice, and the National White Collar Crime Center.
The reported crimes were varied, from identity theft to “romance scams” that con susceptible individuals into sending money to their online “lovers”. On average, those who were scammed lost more than $4,000.
As for how smart phones play a role, the report noted that scam artists and cyber attackers liked to send text messages advertising a great deal or product (sadly, no “Spam folder” yet for text messages). Those who clicked on the link either ended up sending money, or having malware downloaded onto their phone. One California resident discussed receiving two text messages from Wal-Mart claiming that he had won a $1,000 prize. All he needed to do was click on the website link. Fortunately, he saw through the scheme immediately and called Wal-Mart to report it.
The report does not necessarily go into detail as to why cell phones are so vulnerable, except for the texting feature. Maybe the security system is lower, or people simply do not expect to have scammers and thieves invade their phones, which seem like more personal items on the whole than computers. In any event, the Internet Crime Complaint Center noted that while the increase in complaints shows that more people are learning to report cyber crimes, the statistics likely don’t reflect how widespread the problem really is.
People have the right to surf the Internet or use their phones in private, and it is unfortunate whenever anyone is the victim of a cyber crime or a white collar crime. It makes you feel vulnerable and at risk, questioning what the perpetrator has seen or heard of your private information. At the same time, the proposed methods for stopping cyber criminal activity come dangerously close to being as bad as the criminal activity itself — violating people’s privacy and sometimes putting them at risk for being accused of crimes they never committed. The agencies charged with protecting us from cyber crime often operate in a gray area where the Fourth Amendment does not necessarily apply, or at least has not been extended to online activity.
Already, government agencies have asked Internet Service Providers to hold information for certain users for up to two years. What will be the outcome of the recent bout of smart phone crime? Will people get prosecuted for sending texts they never sent, simply because a different person hacked their phone? Criminal defense attorneys already see cases where police simply search phones for texts without permission and without otherwise meeting Fourth Amendment requirements for search and seizure. It is unnerving to think that smart phone cyber crimes could be the new norm, but it is even more so to think that aggressive tactics to root it out could also become the norm.