Cybercriminals are likely to get started young, and the barriers to getting involved with online crime are lower than ever, police have warned.
The Pathways into Cybercrime report from the National Crime Agency (NCA) — the UK’s main body in the fight against organised crime — warns that free and off-the-shelf hacking tools, such as DDoS-for-hire services and remote access Trojans, require almost no technical skill to use and are often advertised on modding or gaming forums — regularly accompanied by links to online tutorials that make the tools really easy to use.
According to the NCA, 61 percent of hackers begin hacking before age 16 and the average age of suspects and arrests in National Cyber Crime Unit investigations in 2015 was 17 years old. In contrast, the average age of arrest for those involved in NCA drugs cases in 2015 was 37; for economic crime cases it was 39.
The report suggests it’s easier than ever for teenagers as young as 13 or 14 to become involved in hacking and cybercrime — and the doorway for many opens with involvement in online forums based around building modifications and cheats for online video games, where the motivation initially is just boosting their reputation.
Young cybercriminals looking to bolster their reputations in online communities are emboldened to use these hacking tools because of the perceived anonymity they have on the internet and a lack of law enforcement presence.
The report also notes that many of the youngsters who become involved in cybercrime may not actually understand that what they’re doing is in fact illegal. Indeed, one member of a hacking collective which sold DDoS tools and botnet services told police that a warning from law enforcement would have made him stop.
While only a small number of these modders and game hackers go onto become highly technically-skilled cybercriminals, the NCA says it’s important to note how “the proliferation of off-the-shelf hacking tools and services has brought the ability to cause significant harm within reach of the young and relatively unskilled cybercriminals”.
The report is based on interviews with young cybercriminals about how and why they got into cybercrime.
One individual jailed for Computer Misuse Act and fraud offences and identified only as Subject 7 told police how “it made me popular, I enjoyed the feeling… I looked up to those users with the best reputations” indicating how hierarchy and a yearning for popularity or respect from senior members of online communities can easily become motives for criminal activity — especially for teenagers with poor offline social skills.
But it doesn’t have to be criminal activity which gives teenagers this sense of accomplishment. Richard Jones, head of the National Cyber Crime Unit’s Prevent team, believes that with the right encouragement and mentoring many young people can take these desires for recognition and apply them for good.
“The aim of this assessment has been to understand the pathways offenders take, and identify the most effective intervention points to divert them towards a more positive path,” he said.
“That can be as simple as highlighting opportunities in coding and programming, or jobs in the gaming and cyber industries, which still give them the sense of accomplishment and respect they are seeking,” Jones added.