Page last updated at 09:18 GMT, Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Crime to boom as downturn blooms

By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News

Stock market falls, AFP/Getty
The downturn may leave many looking for new sources of cash

With the economic downturn affecting every corner of the globe, it is perhaps no surprise that it is likely to affect hi-tech criminals over the next 12 months.

In contrast to many ordinary people, hi-tech criminals are likely to see opportunities to prosper rather than suffer in the downturn.

So say some experts looking forwards to 2009 and what it will mean for the computer security world.

"Crime tends to rise when you have more unemployment," said Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at F-Secure.

"If you look, in general, where the attacks are coming from you can find social reasons behind them," he said.

"It's not a technical problem, it's social," he said.

Easy money

Layoffs of many people familiar with net technology may tempt more into crime, he said, simply because their chances of being caught are slim. Equally, he said, the punishments for those that are caught are not harsh.

Those that did turn to hi-tech crime would find, he said, an underground service economy that will sell them all the bits they need to get started as a net criminal.

There are more targets than ever
Dan Hubbard, Websense

Some security firms fear that making people redundant could also trigger a wave of crime as aggrieved workers strike back at their employers.

This could mean that the intellectual property that a company relies on to keep going, such as its customer database, is copied and walks out of the door when employees pack up and leave.

"The damage that insiders can do should not be underestimated. It can take just a few minutes for an entire database that has taken years to build to be copied to a CD or USB stick," said Adam Bosnian, a spokesman for Cyber-Ark.

"With a faltering economy companies need to be especially vigilant about protecting their most sensitive data against nervous or disgruntled employees," he said.

Card games

"I would imagine that fraud is going to increase next year," said Carl Clump, chief executive of Retail Decisions that helps firms spot and tackle credit card fraud.

Even with the global economic slump, he said, fraud had been increasing year on year and there was no reason to expect that 2009 would buck that trend.

Chip and pin reader, PA
Chip and pin has forced many fraudsters to find new targets

Widespread economic malaise would only act as a fillip to that rising tide, he said.

"It's a lucrative area and it's relatively easy to do," said Mr Clump.

Security initiatives such as chip and pin may have tackled fraud at some points, said Mr Clump, but that meant fraudsters had focussed on the next weakest area.

In particular, he said, many fraudsters have moved on to so-called Card Not Present fraud which is typically carried out via e-tail sites on the net.

Figures released in September by the Association of Payment and Clearing Services (APACS) which represents the UK's card firms showed that CNP fraud was up 18% on 2007 to 161.9m. Over the same period losses from UK online banking fraud rose by 185%.

Those unwilling to become spammers or phishers, said Mr Clump, might well be a tempted into low-grade fraud - especially if they have lost their job or are struggling to make ends meet.

"In times like these people take desperate measures," he said.

Dan Hubbard, chief technology officer at Websense, said the grim times could tempt people to make choices they would not make in better times.

"Gambling tends to go up when economies are down," he said.

This might make people more willing to work alongside web criminals and act as money launderers or mules.

Mr Hubbard said the ongoing development of the web, mash-ups and semantic technologies could introduce new vulnerabilities.

"These will all add another level of complexity to the web," he said.

"It will create a rich user experience but behind the scenes it is grabbing data from all over the place," he warned.

Unless that was properly managed and thoroughly checked for security loopholes it could prove tempting for criminal groups.

"There are more targets than ever," said Mr Hubbard.

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