Organized Crime for the Digital Age


When most people think of organized crime, they think of Prohibition-era gangsters leaning out car windows with tommy guns, shooting at the cops or rival groups. As exciting as that vision of organized crime is, the reality has begun to resemble something else entirely. No longer do mobsters screw around with guns or car chases; instead they’ve taken to the Internet to capitalize on the anonymity and efficiency of conducting their shady dealings online.

Online crime, or cybercrime as many police organizations refer to it, is now a billion dollar industry, which makes it attractive to organized groups of criminals looking to get in on the profit. In fact, there are 3,600 organized crime groups on record in the European Union alone.  One problem that law enforcement groups face is that it is harder to track online criminals than those found in real life, in part because online groups rarely meet, instead restricting their contact to the digital world.

What kinds of people commit crime online?

According to the report, “Organized Crime in the Digital Age,” published last year, 80% of organized crime now takes place online. This figure includes things that seem obvious for online crime like fraud and identity theft, but it also encompasses crimes like drug trafficking. Traditional crime families have also begun conducting business online.

Another statistic that goes against expectations is that not all online crime syndicates are organized by young people. The report found that 43% of online criminals are over the age of 35 and only one-third are actually under 25.

When it comes to groups of online criminals, 50% consist of six people or more, and 25% of groups have 11 or more people.

How do they do it?

Although moviemakers love to depict exciting scenes with hackers cracking systems using obscure coding languages, the reality is that online crime requires very little technical skill. Many operations can take place using only mobile devices. Furthermore, lots of exploitative tools are available for download, so the perpetrators don’t actually have to know how to code. For example, as Ars Technica reported a few months ago, spying on people through webcams requires nothing more than getting hold of a script, following instructions, and finding a way to convince the unsuspecting victim download it. Most crimes done by organized groups don’t take much more tech savvy than that.

What about the cops?

Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending on your sympathies), it is harder for the police to catch online criminals. Kenny McKenzie, Head of Law Enforcement at BAE Systems Detica (author of the Organized Crime report) commented, “As digital crime continues to grow, increased partnership between law enforcement and technical experts – as well as the private sector – will be critical.” Which is to say, the cops don’t really understand how to police online crime; they need help from IT-types – help that they are not currently getting enough of.

Another of the report’s contributors, Professor John Grieve, founder of the John Grieve Centre for Policing and Community Safety, added: “To tackle the problem of digital crime and intervene successfully, we need to move away from traditional models and embrace this new information about how organized criminals operate in a digital context.” The police are still learning how online criminals operate.

Got any cool examples?

As a matter of fact, yes.

Last month saw one of the biggest bank heists ever (who doesn’t love a heist!). A cyber-crime ring managed to make off with $45 million from two Middle Eastern banks by hacking credit card processing firms. The criminals were then able to withdraw money from ATMs in 27 countries.

A distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack targeted a metropolitan utility company in March. This resulted in automated and telephone bill-payment systems being down for two days. Everyone who needed to pay a bill with the utility had to do so in person.

Organized crime is awesome—if you’re a criminal. By distributing their operations and rarely meeting in person, crime groups can have a big impact working through the Internet. Law enforcement agencies are still trying to achieve a command of technology that allows them to effectively combat online groups – but who knows how long it could take them to catch up?

Sara Collins is a writer for NerdWallet, a site that helps readers learn about legal ways to save money, like prepaid tuition and college savings plans.