2012-03-29 / Sam Bari

The new underworld

BY SAM BARI

Back in the day, the underworld existed in seedy bars, dark alleys and back rooms where entry required a secret knock or password. Organized crime was at the top of the heap in that nefarious realm. Petty thieves, street hustlers and smalltime drug dealers made up the lower end of the spectrum. They scratched out a living by stealing, conning and appealing to the weaknesses of mainstream society.

Police departments and other law enforcement agencies justifi ed their payrolls to taxpayers by managing to at least make an appearance of controlling the activities of that underworld. However, the enforcers weren’t stupid. If they actually wiped out underworld crime, for lack of a better term, they’d be out of a job.

Besides, the general public seemed to tolerate a certain amount of unsavory activity, especially the somewhat victimless crimes, like the many forms of low-stakes gambling. Insurance companies even liked the idea that people had a penchant for buying merchandise that allegedly “fell off the back of a truck,” because that kind of activity justified the need for their existence.

In a way, a certain amount of nonviolent crime is apparently good for the economy. Not only law enforcement, attorneys, court personnel and a plethora of other people are kept employed, but related businesses like burglar alarm companies can stay afloat, all due to unlawful behavior. But the words made famous by Bob Dylan – “Times they are a changin’,” has adopted another meaning.

A new underworld that is darker, seedier and much more difficult to detect has emerged from the World Wide Web, and is growing at an alarming rate. The predators are everywhere, and they are invisible, hiding behind space-age technology. They are hackers and scammers that use the Internet to make an illicit living that is more profitable and harder to prosecute than crimes committed in the notorious drug trade.

According to government statistics, the global illegal drug trade accumulated $400 billion in revenues in 2011. Cybercrime did $338 billion according to the Norton Cybercrime report.

Nonetheless, cyber criminals out-profited the drug dealers by billions because the cost of doing business on the Internet is close to zero, unless they are running an illicit website like an auction site. Even then, we’re talking hundreds of dollars per year, while drug manufacturing, smuggling and distribution costs billions.

To put these staggering figures into perspective, in the tiny state of Rhode Island, Internet auction fraud alone in 2011 totaled $223,000, while other cybercrime exceeded $1,600,000. Most of the cybercrime involved identity theft and credit card fraud through social website hacking.

In the United States alone, 74 million people fell victim to online scams, phishing attacks and exploitative malware. The cost to the U.S. economy was an estimated $32 billion in 2011. The report suggested that more than 69 percent, which was two-thirds of online adults, had fallen victim to cybercrime. And that figure is on the rise.

Symantec, the antivirus manufacturer that issued the report, said that U.S. authorities take nearly twice as long to resolve cyber crime than its British counterparts.

Advocates of an unregulated Internet want to keep cyberspace as an unencumbered resource. However, lack of regulation opens the doors for every scammer, hacker and cyber-thief to operate with impunity.

Since much of the illicit activity is initiated in Third World countries, enforcing any Internet regulations is difficult at best. By the time authorities trace the source of any Internet scam, the scammers have usually shut the website down.

The Third World countries and tiny tropical islands where many of the Internet criminals reside are not overly eager to make arrests. The hackers make serious money, and they spend it freely. Even if the local authorities wanted to prosecute, they don’t have regulatory legislation or the resources required to catch the offenders at their dark and dangerous craft.

Hackers hang out in social media websites like Facebook, and scan member information. They often befriend members who give too much information in their profi les. Consequently, the hackers do not have to be overly talented to take advantage of their victims.

Besides the hackers that victimize individuals, the Internet is the perfect setting for online brothels to freely operate. The sex trade boasts worldwide networks offering services in most large municipalities. Through the Internet, doing business with a brothel is as easy as making an appointment with a massage therapist who makes house calls.

Protecting yourself from hackers is not an easy task. Be cautious about shopping on the Internet and giving out a credit card number that has a high limit. And reveal as little information as possible on social websites.

The new underworld is a scary place, and must be entered with extreme caution.

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