(ARA) - Gone are the days when hackers were the weekend enthusiasts you tolerated on the golf course, when viruses were the things that gave you the flu or a cold, and Phish was a popular jam band who served as the inspiration for your favorite flavor of Ben and Jerry's. With the rise of the Internet and electronic devices has come the rise of cyber-related crime.
Cybercrime, as it is called, is defined as a criminal activity using computers or other electronic devices to victimize people, organizations or businesses.
"Despite a global recession, improved security and international crackdown efforts, cybercrime has thrived over the last decade, growing by double digits year after year," says Clint Kirkwood, a professor of Criminal Justice at Argosy University, Orange County and 28-year veteran and retired commanding officer of the vice section of the narcotics division of the Detroit Police Department. While estimates of the cost of cyber crime to businesses and the private sector vary, a 2011 publication released by Javelin Strategy and Research, the annual cost of identity theft alone was $37 billion. "Today, some of the most successful criminals do not have to leave the comfort of their own homes to pull off crimes bigger than ever. All they need is an Internet connection, a little tech savvy and a lot of bad will," says Kirkwood.
The Internet Crime Complaint Center received more than 300,000 complaints in 2011, which included such crimes as FBI-related scams, identity theft, advance fee fraud and a host of romance, work-from-home, auto auction, loan intimidation and other scams.
"Since the take-off of social networking and the paperless way of conducting business, cyber-based criminal activity has skyrocketed in many corners of the world," says Gary Gonzales, a professor in the Criminal Justice program at Argosy University, San Diego and police detective in his 16th year of service with the San Diego Police Department. "Criminals are masking themselves as potential customers, clients or even professionals to lure innocent people into a web of deception and greed. From copyright infringement and cyber bullying to child pornography and spamming, the impact is enormous."
Knowing the threats you face online and the tools available to help you keep a watchful eye is critical in protecting yourself in the digital world. There are simple precautions that computer, mobile phone and other digital users can take to ensure their safety. Do not open emails/attachments from unknown or suspicious sources, nor answer email messages that ask for your personal information.
"The widows of Nigerian generals desperately seeking your financial assistance and notifications that you've won a European lottery are obvious scams but some email fraud can be much more difficult to distinguish," says Arabinda Banerjee, senior vice president of Technology Infrastructure at a leading bank in Tampa, Florida and faculty member at Argosy University, Tampa.
"In general, if it seems too good to be true or requires you to send money in to receive a reward, be sure to avoid it. Emails with vague but feel-good subject lines like 'Congratulations! …' or the name of a friend and the message 'has shared a picture/video …' can be malicious emails, even when apparently sent out by one of your friends." Do an Internet search using the term 'scam' and some of the key words from the message, advises Banerjee. If it's a known scam, you'll likely see it pop up in your search engine results.
Invest in a good anti-virus software and firewall, the experts suggest. While this will not guarantee 100 percent protection, they will definitely reduce your risk greatly. Be sure that any WiFi connection you are using to conduct financial business is locked and protected and any stores you are making purchases from are reputable. In addition, be sure to monitor your financial accounts monthly to determine any fraudulent charges and report suspicious activity immediately.
Change your passwords frequently and create passwords that are difficult to guess. Do not use the same ID/password in all websites. While keeping track of multiple logins and passwords may be an inconvenience, it's a necessary protection against hackers.