Inventive criminals catch us out on web

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 April, 2012, 12:00am


The huge expansion of, and widespread access to, high-speed internet access has fuelled the rapid growth in personal communication over the past 30 years. From the early days of costly, power-hungry mobile phones that were as big and as heavy as a briefcase, we moved to now long-obsolete pagers. In the past decade, ever smaller, lighter phones have come on the market - along with faster personal computers, and sleek tablets.

Yet, just as we have benefited from these innovations, we have also suffered from a growing problem caused by their arrival: sophisticated cyber crime - once largely unknown - has become a major concern in the past decade.

Cyber crime is an illegal action or activity that is committed over the internet. The net itself can be either the tool, which causes the harm, or a facilitator that leads to another crime. If someone leaves threatening or harassing messages on your Facebook page, for example, it is clear that computers and the internet are the direct weapons. Another example is when someone hacks into your computer to access your bank account details, and steals your money.

In some cases, criminals use social networking websites like everyone else - making friends and maintaining friendships. But their ultimate goal is to lure victims into a trap of physical assault or fraud.

Cyber crime can be divided into two categories: crimes that target computers, and crimes that target computer users. Sometimes it can be hard to draw the line because the two are so intertwined. Let's check out some common examples.

Computer virus

Computer viruses can slow down your computers, erase all your data, and attack and damage your hard drive. They have the ability to replicate quickly, and spread from one computer to another. A computer virus will attach itself onto some software in the computer. Computer viruses rely heavily on users to run that software because that is the only time they can replicate. E-mail is a common way for computer viruses to spread.

They are usually disguised as funny pictures, audios and videos, and sometimes interesting mini games. They simply aim to grab your attention.

The intention is for you to open the e-mail, or attached link, and infect your computer. Some viruses, once they are embedded in an e-mail account, will multiply and forward themselves to other contacts found in that account. This is dangerous because receivers are more likely to open e-mail that has been forwarded by somebody they know. In such cases, the senders don't even take part in the forwarding process.

A computer virus called Melissa was the first-ever mass-mailing virus. It managed to cling onto Words documents and forwarded itself through Microsoft Outlook. Melissa shut down the e-mail service of many companies in 1999.

Cyber bullying

Another crime caused by the growth of the internet is cyber bullying. Electronic devices make bullying possible everywhere. Whether you are in your bedroom or a holiday resort, if you have access to your mobile phone or the net, you are open to attacks.

Tyler Clementi, a university student at Rutgers, in New Jersey, jumped to his death from a bridge in September 2010 after discovering his encounter with a man had been filmed by his roommate, Dharun Ravi, using a hidden webcam and also shared with other people. Ravi, who also tweeted about the encounter, was convicted last month of a hate crime and invasion of privacy for spying on his roommate. He will be sentenced on May 21.

Child grooming

There have been many cases of criminals using social networking platforms to befriend children and teenagers. After winning the victims' trust, the perpetrators meet them and finally commit crimes against them, including indecent assault. Social networking websites make young people more vulnerable because the screen-to-screen distance gives perpetrators the chance to hide their criminal intentions. This act is called child grooming.


Thieves often use phishing scams to steal a victims' money. Phishing usually involves the use of a bogus website, which resembles another legitimate website. Because of the similarities, the bogus website can deceive some people and lure them into giving away their personal details, such as bank account password. The transaction website PayPal, for instance, was exploited by phishing scammers.

Copyrights infringement

Music record labels and film studios spent almost US$100 million lobbying for a tougher United States copyright law last year. Copyright is the legal right to reproduce an intellectual property, such as a piece of writing or music. For example, someone can infringe copyrights by uploading a song onto the web for people to download.

However, the definition of copyright infringement has become increasingly vague. In today's culture, is doing a cover version of a copyrighted song on YouTube breaking copyright law? What about remixing a mash-up tune made up of a few pop songs? On the other side of the argument, the entertainment industry has been accused for many years of exaggerating its losses from copyright infringements.

Distributed denial-of-service attack

The term distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack refers to attacks that target websites and internet services and make them unavailable. First, random computers get infected by malware and are turned into 'zombie' computers. Together, they form a collection of compromised computers, called a botnet. The organiser of the attack, the botmaster, will then instruct all the zombie computers to overload the target all at once. The method includes sending millions of e-mails or having numerous computers logging in at the same time.

The targets of these attacks vary from multinational corporations to religious groups and governments. A hacker group called Anonymous is known for its use of DDoS attacks. It has been formed sporadically over the internet by many net users. Its aim is to advocate internet freedom.

The group has been attacking a number of Chinese government and companies' websites recently. A new Chinese branch was set up on March 30, and it declared its aim was to take down the Great Firewall of China - the strict internet censorship by the central government.


The word malware is a combination of the words 'malicious' and 'software'. Whenever there is something wrong, we blame computer viruses. But that is a generalisation. Sometimes computers can be infected by other damaging software, such as worms and spywares. These software are technically different from computer viruses: worms target mainly networks, while viruses attack only computers.

Spyware exists to steal information from computers, while viruses bring down only computers. The name for all these malicious software and computer codes is malware. Macintosh-makers Apple used to produce computers that were believed to be malware-free. But in the past month, Apple's computers have been attacked by a wave of malware attacks.