Profits from cybercrime are being used to fund other criminal activity, while the volume and impact of online threats is increasing, Europol has said.
The European law enforcement agency published its Serious Organised Crime Threat Assessment (SOCTA) report this week and it highlighted cybercrime as one of the areas requiring concerted action by EU member states.
The report said economic crimes and fraud, in particular, have emerged as significant organised crime activities. Improvements in technology have been a “major factor” in the proliferation of serious and organised crime.
“The internet offers multiple opportunities for organised crime. It facilitates the search for and accessing of information, the targeting of victims, the concealing of criminal activities, the arrangement of logistics, recruitment, distribution, the laundering of criminal proceeds and creates previously unknown criminal markets,” Europol said.
As the internet becomes more essential to everyday life, especially on mobile devices, criminals can target a large pool of victims.
“The proliferation of internet access in Africa and Asia is creating additional opportunities and spaces for OCGs (organised crime groups) targeting public and private parties in the EU. Cybercrime in the form of large-scale data breaches, online frauds and child sexual exploitation poses an ever-increasing threat to the EU, while profit-driven cybercrime is becoming an enabler for other criminal activity,” the report said.
A lack of security awareness is also putting citizens and their personal data increasingly at risk of exploitation by cyber-criminals, Europol warned. “OCGs can already access a large pool of potential victims via social networking, spamming and phishing websites, and shopping or auction facilities. Social media, dating sites and online forums are gaining a particular prominence in online child sexual exploitation, THB [trafficking in human beings] and fraud respectively.”
Stolen personal data, which can be used to produce counterfeit or forged documents, allows criminals to commit a wide range of organised frauds both online and offline, the report said. This gives the groups access to finances and social benefits, as well as the ability to open or hijack bank accounts, collect payments from financial institutions or assume the identities of genuine companies.
Detecting and prosecuting these types of crimes has become more complex because of the perceived anonymity afforded by the internet. “Criminals are able to exploit a variety of different tools and techniques to conceal their identities and obscure their offences,” Europol said.
There are an estimated 3,600 organised crime groups currently active in the EU. More than 30pc are involved in more than one criminal enterprise and 40pc use a network-style structure – which has implications for how law-enforcement agencies must tackle the threat.
Another factor that will have a “profound impact” on how law enforcement tackles cybercrime is the growing use of cloud computing, Europol said. “It will see users and criminals storing less data on their devices, which will present a significant challenge to existing criminal investigation and digital forensic practice.”
Looking ahead, Europol expects the internet to become an even more important marketplace for illegal goods and criminal services, and it expects overall cybercrime to increase.
Earlier this year, the agency unveiled its European Cyber Crime Centre at the Hague. As reported by Siliconrepublic.com in January, Irishman Paul Gillen – former head of the computer crime investigation unit at An Garda Síochána, has been appointed as head of operations for the centre.