Identity Theft And Phishing As Cybercrimes Criminology Essay

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Cybercrimes can be defined as criminal activities which take place or occur within cyberspace. These crimes are common and ever increasing as cybercriminals continue to find new ways of taking "advantage of unwary internet users" (Mitchell, 2010). A frequently practiced form of cybercrime includes identity theft, which is the use of an individual's private details without their knowledge or approval (Ombudsman for Banking Services, 2009). This essay will discuss phishing as a form of identity theft with the use of various articles as examples to enhance the understanding of identity theft and phishing as cybercrimes. In addition, a criminological theory will be applied to identity theft in order to gain further insight into this particular cybercrime.

Defining Cybercrime

Cybercrime is used generally to describe a variety of illegal offences of which only a few are specifically associated with computers and "the telecommunications infrastructure that supports their use". This specific crime type involves the utilization of digital technologies in the task of the offence or is specifically directed at "computing and communications technologies, or is incidental to the commission of other crimes" (Smith et al. 2004:7).

Identity theft and phishing can be described as forms of cybercriminal activity. These crimes are defined as hybrid crimes. Hybrid crimes are those which can exist 'online' as well as 'offline'. Specifically, these crimes work with the worldwide scope that cyber environments provide (Muncie et al. 2010:77).

Currently, cybercrime is an extremely profitable business and will no doubt continue to be for a very long time. The main reason for this is because many people are not aware of how rife it is and of how susceptible they are to the threat of this crime. The best possible way that consumers and corporations can protect themselves from cybercrimes and cybercriminal activity is to alert themselves and those around them with the use of awareness campaigns and also, people should make sure that their systems are protected with Anti-Malware and Anti-Virus software kits which have precise "virus definition" and regular software updates to decrease the risk of being under threat of cybercriminal activity (Microzoneg, 2009).

Identity Theft

Identity theft is defined as a crime that happens when someone wrongfully gains access to and uses the personal information of another individual in a way that involves fraud or dishonesty. Usually, this crime is carried out in order to gain access to an individual's personal funds. Victims of identity theft normally become aware when they note that they are frequently being charged for items that they never purchased, or when they realise that there has been an opening of a new credit card after viewing their credit reports (Jasper, 2006:1).

Annually, 10 million consumers are the victims of identity theft. There are many ways in which cybercriminals can obtain an individual's personal information, and these are generally very cleverly disguised. Criminals can intercept personal information that is freely shared over the Internet and can also easily obtain information such as the victim's account details by emailing them and falsely acting as their bank (Jasper, 2006:1-3).

Because of the fact that individuals are so afraid that they will fall prey to cybercriminals, at times they do not think rationally when asked for their personal details. When provided the chance of being able to protect themselves, individuals will willingly give all the details needed if the 'bank' requires them to do so. Thus, cybercriminals do not find it immensely difficult to obtain all the beneficial information that they need.

Some examples of identity theft crimes are the run-up of costs on the victim's credit cards, opening a new credit card account making use of the victim's name, birth date and social security number, establishing a telephone or wireless facility using the victim's name, opening a bank account and writing bad cheques on the account and obtaining employment by making use of the victim's personal identity (Jasper, 2006:3-4).

Phishing as a Cybercrime

Phishing is a form of identity theft which includes the deceitful endeavour to gain the personal details of an individual with the use of text messages and emails. The criminal will act as the victim's bank, for example, and will request personal information from the consumer (such as the PIN number) in order to gain access to the funds in the account. (Ramsamy, 2009)

As explained before, the consumer makes it easy for the cybercriminal to gain access to their personal funds and resources as they are so adamant on keeping themselves safe from cybercrime that they very readily give out their information without thinking sensibly.

Cases of Cybercrime

Over the years, cybercrime has become much more frequent in nature. These cases can be found occurring throughout the world, and will probably continue to occur for a very long time as it is such a profitable business (microzoneg, 2009).

Theft of Virtual Characters

In the month of November 2009, a man was arrested for stealing virtual characters from a "web based role-playing game". The man apparently obtained the log-in information for Runescape, reportedly the world's largest multi-player online game, to embezzle their "virtual characters". The article, published in The Times, states that the man who is from Avon and Somerset Area had already had a number of computer mistreatment offences on his criminal record (Ahmed, 2009).

These types of crimes do occur quite often, as a similar case occurred in the Netherlands in 2008. Reportedly, a group of fourteen and fifteen year olds were convicted for the assault of a fellow Runescape player. The boys had threatened the player with a knife, pressuring him to give them a mask and an amulet within the game (Ahmed, 2009).

Online gaming seems to be the cause of a lot of recent violent behaviours amongst youth, and the stealing of virtual characters may not seem to be such a tremendous crime, but thinking of all the time and effort that has been put into creating that specific character, this crime shouldn't be, according to Mark Gerhard, the chief executive of Jagex Games, "treated differently to the theft of any other valuable possessions" (Ahmed, 2009).

Credit and Debit Card Information Hackings

Another case of cybercrime was highlighted in May 2008, when a Mr Albert Gonzalez was arrested for one of the largest hackings in all of US history. The computer hacker aided with the theft of "tens of millions of credit card numbers from major retailers" (AP, 2009). He is reportedly going to be spending between 17-25 years behind bars as a result of the seriousness of this criminal offence.

Gonzalez did, however, confirm that he had used a number of drugs and consumed large quantities of alcohol preceding his arrest. He admitted to using various narcotics such as marijuana, LSD and cocaine and he has also been said to have behavioural patterns which are very consistent with that of Asperger's Syndrome, which is a form of autism (AP, 2004).

According to Dr Barry Roth, a member of the defence commission, Albert was an "internet addict" who was often associated with awkwardness, had troubles when it came to connecting with people and had an odd fixation with machines and technology in general (AP, 2009).

Because drugs and alcohol are so often associated with violent behaviour and aggressiveness, it can be said that they warp the minds of many people and cause them to do things that generally are not expected of them. Since Albert Gonzalez did make use of drugs and alcohol frequently, it could perhaps be said that it caused him to become fixated with technological things and the Internet specifically because it also gave a sense of 'escaping reality' and, since alcohol causes people to believe they can do anything, could have led Albert to believe that he could steal money and still get away with it. With all crimes, the psychological and behavioural background of the offender needs to be taken into consideration.

Military Computer Hacking

In 2002 a man named Gary McKinnon was arrested for what is described as "the greatest military computer hack of all time" (The Sunday Times, 2009). McKinnon was allegedly blamed for $700,000 of destruction when he "hacked into 97 military computers" at the Pentagon and NASA and stole 950 passwords, as well as erased files from the Earle naval armaments post in New Jersey.

McKinnon stated in an interview to The Sunday Times that he had not meant for the hackings to seem malicious, but that he was simply curious and wanted to find out information about UFO's. He also openly admitted that he sees himself as a nerd and a loner and that he used to drink beer and smoke dope while hacking into the military systems (The Sunday Times, 2009).

This perception of himself could arise from the fact that Gary has Asperger's syndrome. This syndrome does not affect the mental intelligence of the person because the sufferer is in fact very intelligent, but it does leave the sufferer feeling uncomfortable in social situations (The Sunday Times, 2009).

This crime could leave Gary McKinnon spending 60 years in prison, which is a very high price to pay for simply being 'curious'. Due to the fact that he has Asperger's syndrome and often resorts to drinking and smoking marijuana, it could be assumed that perhaps these elements wrongfully influenced him to engage in illegal activities, and in addition with his illness could have made matters even worse. Perhaps, due to his loneliness and inability to socialise, he resorted to finding company with the Internet and hacking to gain information that interested him.

The Role of Gender in Cybercrime

Generally, males are known to display higher rates of abnormal behaviour as compared to females. Although small, the gap between the rates of male and female criminal behaviour is constant. Historically, most forms of crime such as violence, aggressiveness, and freedom of speech were carried out by men, but with the case of cybercrime we cannot simply state that males perform these criminal activities more than females because there is not enough evidence of this; it has not been explored to a very great extent. However, a test done by a few undergraduate students concludes that "existing theories of crime may apply similarly to males and females in predicting digital crimes" (Morris, 2009:393-404).

Criminological Theory Applied to Cybercrime

A criminological theory that can be applied to the act of cybercrime is the theory of Routine Activities. This theory states that criminal actions take place when there is an intersection of space and time of a stimulated criminal, a desirable target and an absence of competent supervision (Cullen, 2002).

The two important people who were responsible for the proposal of this theory are Larry Cohen and Marcus Felson in 1979. Their theory is very strongly related to that of the Rational Choice theory. This is because both theories concentrate on the features of the crime as opposed to the features of the offender (DeMelo, 1999).

The Routine Activities theory states that offences are linked to "the nature of everyday patterns of social interaction" (DeMelo, 1999). Felson and Cohen believed that changes in society had and is still leading to social disorganisation and thus to broader crime opportunities (DeMelo, 1999).

In the cases of the cybercriminals, Albert Gonzalez, Gary McKinnon and the virtual character thief, this criminological theory is applied very well. They had begun their cybercrimes (hackings) with enthusiasm and determination, had found attractive targets to fulfil their desires, and had no one to tell them that it was wrong, illegal and could get them into a lot of trouble.


Therefore, it is quite clear that cybercrime is a rather serious crime and is continuing to increase in frequency as time goes by and society constantly changes. Also, the nature of these crimes is becoming more and more violent, especially amongst the youth of our world. Societies need to become more self-disciplined, and both offenders and victim's need to be more aware of the dangers and consequences of these criminal behaviours, especially phishing and identity theft. Phishing and identity theft as forms of cybercrime can be classified under the Routine Activities criminological theory as they rise in frequency as society changes and a disorganised society opens up greater crime opportunities for offenders. Cybercrimes should not be taken lightly, and if not dealt with correctly, will continue to be on the rise for many years to come.

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