The Center for American Progress just released a report indicating that not enough is being done to protect the public from fraud on the Internet. It’s also warning that the convenience, choices and lower prices enjoyed by Internet users are at risk because of this.

They report reveals that high levels of fraud and abuse may cause more and more consumers to lose trust, a key-component of any successful business. Malicious software, phishing and spam were cited as primary causes for the high levels of fraud and abuse on the Internet.

Studies indicate that over 80 percent of all e-mail is spam. It should be noted that spam is the preferred delivery vehicle of fraud and abuse on the Internet. Malware and phishing normally start with a spam e-mail. In Phishing schemes — which are designed to steal personal and financial information — the use of malicious software to automatically steal information is on the rise. In the past, phishing normally relied on a social engineering scheme to accomplish this goal.

The Anti Phishing Working Group, an organization that tracks phishing activity, has noted an increase in the use of malicious software to phish information. They speculate that ability of e-criminals to use automated tools to spread crimeware (a.k.a. malware) could be the reason for the increase.

The report states that although the Federal Trade Commission is stepping up enforcement activity, it’s resources are limited and more action by the State attorney generals is desperately needed. It cites as an example that over the past three years, only 11 cases against spyware distributors have been brought forward by the States, which is the same number taken for action by the FTC.

The Center for American Progress and the Center for Democracy and Technology asked States to provide data on the complaints they received 2006 and 2007. Thirty six States responded and most of them had a Internet related category listed in their top-ten complaints. It was also noted that overall Internet related complaints increased from 2006 to 2007. Eight of the States listed Internet related complaints in their top-three and four States listed them as being the number-one complaint.

The FTC, who gathers data on a much wider scale noted an increase of 16,000 Internet related complaints in 2007 versus the number received in 2006. When comparing the numbers to 2005, a 24,000 increase in complaints was noted.

The report points out that many experts speculate that not all cybercrime is reported or even discovered. Additionally, the standard for classifying it varies from State to State, which makes it hard to evaluate current statistical data. Given these factors, many believe the problem is understated.

In looking at the enforcement level by the States, the Center for American Progress and the Center for Democracy and Technology gathered information from annual and biennial reports, websites, news articles, and the bimonthly Cybercrime Newsletter released by the National Association of Attorneys General.

Data from the Cybercrime Newsletter revealed that 60 percent of the cases prosecuted were for the sexual enticement of minors or pornography. Crimes involving the theft of information or identity theft represented 8.9 percent of the total and 15.5 percent involved online sales and services. The majority of the cases involving online sales and services were for false advertising or the quality of a product or service.

The conclusion given by the researchers is that not very many crimes involving phishing, spyware, spam, adware and hacking were being effectively investigated or prosecuted. “Internet crime requires almost no expense to execute, carries potentially high financial rewards, and involves relatively little risk of being caught and punished,” according to the report.

The monetary cost of all this activity isn’t cheap, either. In 2007, an estimated $7.1 billion was lost due to phishing, viruses and malware in the United States, alone. Given that the estimated losses in 2006 was a mere $2 billion, this would lead a reasonable person to speculate that the problem is a growing one. Worldwide estimates put the losses at about $100 billion.

The report gives a possible reason for the increase in activity. With few overhead or start-up costs a phishing group can net about $250,000 a month and operate anonymously from just about anywhere in the world.

Do it yourself (DIY) phishing kits for sale on the Internet have been cited as a primary cause of more and more activity, also. Some of these DIY kits even come with technical support. The bottom line is that it no longer takes much technical knowledge to become a phisherman.

The report speculates that we shouldn’t be surprised that online fraud and abuse are at high levels and calls for stronger deterrents. They believe that stronger action by the state attorneys general is key to this effort.

While more support at the State level is needed, I’m not sure if the States can control Internet crime all by themselves. Internet crime moves across borders with a click of a mouse and it’s going to be difficult for Alabama to prosecute a spammer or phisherman living in Moscow, Shanghai, Montreal or London.

Two so-called spam kings were recently prosecuted by the federal government. One later escaped and killed himself and family members in the process. These arrests didn’t seem to make much of a dent in the amount of spam being sent. Both of the government press releases on these stories mentioned they were catering to commercial clients. Any solution to crime on the Internet will have to take a long and hard look at what enables the activity to be too easy to facilitate in the first place.

Some blame the Internet Service Providers (which seem to be a dime a dozen) for looking the other way because spam brings in revenue for them. Of course, auction sites like eBay have long been criticized for looking the other way at the the criminal activity on their sites. Since Internet Service Providers and Auction sites operate worldwide with a click of the mouse, it’s difficult to prosecute or investigate anything on the Internet.

This list of Internet crime enablers is long and the one’s referenced regarding service providers and auction sites are merely two examples of them. But if you were to take a look at all them, they have one thing in common: which is maintaining an environment conducive to making money easily. The question is how long will it take for the financial and social costs of Internet fraud and abuse to inspire a more responsible and practical approach to the problem?

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