As a Detective Sergeant in the British Police I had to supervise investigations and had to set an investigative strategy for my Detectives to follow. By far the hardest of these investigations would have been ‘Cyber Crime’ offences. These come in many formats and include personal crimes like stalking and harassment all the way through to data breaches and malicious damage caused to intellectual property and company records.
The main difficulties for your standard law enforcement agency is that of capacity, ability and the competing demands of threat, risk, and harm.
The average Detective has a basic understanding of internet safety and a more advanced officer may know how to check your hard drive for malicious software, beyond that you have little or no hope of them identifying who has targeted you, or where your data or money has gone.
Jemma was an attractive female personal trainer who had worked hard and had built a strong client base. To do this she had often posted provocative photos of herself working out in the gym and linked them to various social media websites. After a while Jemma was approached in the street by a number of men, they were unhappy that she had stood them up on pre-arranged dates that had been organised through dating websites. Jemma was also starting to have gifts and abusive letters sent to her address, again these were from men who had arranged dates on dating websites, she had even been verbally abused by women in the street who thought she had been contacting their partners… Jemma had never been on these sites, she didn’t need them!
Eventually a friend of Jemma’s showed her a dating app profile that had been created in her name, this was a ‘no strings attached’ hook up app where people met for affairs and commitment free sex. The profile was packed with her provocative gym photos and a Bio saying that she was keen to meet local men for ‘dating & more’. Jemma contacted the local police to complain and a stalking and harassment investigation was launched.
The Detective in charge was directed to contact the website owners and request details of who owned the account on their dating site. This was when we hit our first brick wall, the company were based in South America and way out of our jurisdiction, they just ignored our requests, we now had no leads to follow. Luckily for us another profile popped up on another website, this was a North American owner and they were more than happy to help us, they wanted to ensure the safety of their customers. They supplied all the data they had and an IP address, this was our key to locating the suspect! Unfortunately the suspect was quite knowledgeable and had enlisted the services of a VPN, VPN stands for “Virtual Private Network” these are designed to protect your network connection when using public networks, VPNs encrypt your internet traffic and disguise your online identity. Yet again we had no credible lines of enquiry and the case was not progressing. There was nowhere else to go, Jemma had a few disgruntled ex-boyfriends, women who didn’t like her because she was pretty and a number of business competitors in the area, we couldn’t arrest everyone.
Some may say that Jemma shouldn’t have posted her photo’s and that she had caused her own problems, that’s a moral debate that I have no interest in, in my opinion she is free to advertise her business as she likes. You may even think it’s a funny joke that someone has pulled on her, and let’s not forget the people who believed they were talking to her online, some of whom had been sharing intimate images which they believed were going to her, when in fact they were going to an imposter who had bad intent. These photos and videos could have been used for blackmail or to publicly embarrass someone.
Jemma was a victim of malicious stalking and harassment, she lost business, friends and reputation, she felt unsafe on the streets of her home town. This also had a psychological impact on her, she felt unsafe with men and unable to form relationships, Jemma felt as if she needed to move away and start fresh somewhere else, this was not a bit of victimless fun.
All the Police could do in this case was to offer weak advice around personal safety and to warn against sharing images online. Companies like google can do reverse image searches and delete unwanted pictures, however, this facility was in its infancy at the time and usually reserved to prevent pornographic images of children being shared online.
If asked, I would have to manage the expectations of anyone who reports a Cyber crime to the police, there is very little that your local Police can do.
In the UK all victims of online fraud are directed to ‘Action Fraud’, they collate all the online scams so that they have a national view of the problem, these are usually romance fraud or blackmail cases where the victims are threatened with the release of intimate photos. There is no point in 20 different Police Forces investigating a scam that is being played out across the whole nation if not the whole world. Sometimes they do have some success and to do this they have to liaise with Law enforcement agencies across the world, some of who have little or no interest in internet crime.
Matt Trott has over 30 years of experience within the British Police and Military, he now provides investigations, security consultancy and training services. His UK company is Jackdaw Training & Protective Services. Matt has just authored his first book, HARD STOP, which details his life as a young soldier and his police career as an undercover operations specialist. HARD STOP is due for release in early 2022.