A surprising decrease in individual cybercrime victimization amid COVID

American criminologists see a surprising decrease in cybercrime amid COVID-19

Photo of Parti
Photo of Dearden
Photo of Hawdon

Katalin Parti studies cybercrime, victimization, school violence, and sexual violence.

Thomas Dearden studies cybercrime, victimization, white collar crime.

James Hawdon studies cybercrime, online extremism, and runs the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention at Virginia Tech.

The COVID-19 pandemic has radically altered life, killing hundreds of thousands across the globe and leading many countries to issue “stay-at-home” orders to contain the virus. Based on the reports and alerts of crime agencies such as the FBI and Europol, as well as journal articles warning about the rapid rise of cybercrime, we anticipated that COVID-19 would affect victimization rates as people spent more time at home and less time in public. The pandemic may also affect victimization differently depending on the type of crime. For example, street crimes appear to be decreasing while intimate partner crimes are increasing.  We considered a third type of crime: cybercrime. This research is probably the first theoretical consideration of how a pandemic can influence routine activities and the first empirical evidence concerning how cyber routines and cybervictimization have changed after the pandemic.  

Given the well-known relationship between routine activities and criminal victimization, it is likely that COVID-19 will influence victimization rates. As people spend more time at home and less time in public, the convergence of motivated offenders, suitable targets, and guardians upon which criminal victimization depends (Cohen and Felson 1979) is undoubtedly altered. Evidence suggests that street crime rates are declining, as major cities across the US report decreases ranging from 30% to 42% following the implementation of stay-at-home orders (Coyne 2020; Jacobs and Barrett 2020; Shayegh and Malpede 2020). Treating the pandemic as a natural experiment, we investigated how the changes resulting from reduced social interaction have affected the rates of cybervictimization. We compared pre-pandemic rates of victimization with post-pandemic rates using datasets designed to track cybercrime. We found that the pandemic had not radically altered cyber-routines nor changed cybervictimization rates.

Cybervictimization change as routine activities change

The pandemic has resulted in people spending more time online and this would increase the potential victim’s visibility to likely offenders. Indeed, research indicates that the proportion of users who access the internet only from home is positively related to cybertheft victimization (Song, Lynch, and Cochran, 2016). However, simply spending more time online may not necessarily result in a greatly enhanced probability of being victimized because overall time spent online is likely less important than the specific online activities in which one engages. Risky online routines would include surfing the dark web, playing online video games, online shopping, and visiting social media sites would increase the target’s visibility and the offender’s access, and we anticipated that increases in these behaviors would result in higher rates of cybervictimization, as shown in previous research (Bossler and Holt 2009; Bossler, Holt and May 2012; Costello et al. 2016; Hawdon, Oksanen, and Räsänen 2014; Leukfeldt and Yar 2016; Navarro and Jasinski 2012; Reyns, Henson, and Fisher 2011; van Wilsem 2011). Time spent performing other online routines, such as working online or reading the news, may have also increased due to the pandemic, but these activities are unlikely to affect cybervictimization since they would not bring one into “risky” virtual spaces.

We tested cybervictimization on US Census data-based panels

Samples of panels of Americans based on US Census data representing sex, age, race, and ethnicity, were collected pre (November 2019) and post (April 2020) pandemic. In total, 1,109 respondents had usable data in the pre-COVID sample, and 1,021 in the post-COVID-19 sample.

Types of victimizations tested included scams, identity theft, unknown transactions, notification from organizations about data theft, online bullying, online sexual harassment, and malware/viruses. Only one significant difference was found. The post-COVID-19 sample reported fewer notifications by companies that their data had been stolen (χ2=7.97(1), p=.005). In the pre-COVID-19 sample 21% of respondents indicated they had been notified by a company about data loss whereas in the post-COVID-19 sample only 16% indicated they had been notified by a company about data loss. We also examined differences in self-protection measures use in the pre/post-COVID-19 samples using similar chi-squared tests. Only one significant difference was found. While 70% of the post-COVID-19 sample indicated that they used virus software or firewalls, only 66% of the pre-COVID-19 reported that they did (χ2=3.97(1), p=.046). To see the differences in computer behaviors between the samples, we compared pre-COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 computer-related activities. These activities include playing online games, reading news or other articles online, browsing social media, using a computer while working, and shopping online. Only one activity, reading news or other online articles was significantly higher in the post-COVID-19 sample (t=-4.4(2093), p<.001).

In order to examine whether the chances of victimization changed due to changes in daily routines (e.g. working from home), we conducted negative binominal regression. Factors significantly related to lower risk of victimization included time working on a computer (IRR=0.95; p < .005) and all protective behaviors including covering a webcam (IRR=0.70; p < .001), having identity theft protection (IRR=0.78; p < .001), freezing credit (IRR=0.53; p<.001), and having virus protection (IRR=0.74; p<.001). It is worth noting that the COVID index variable was not significant, meaning the post-COVID sample did not affect victimization risk.  

Based on our results, the stay-at-home orders did not radically alter our (risky) cyber-routines, and cybervictimization did not increase. Instead, levels of cybervictimization were nearly identical pre and post-pandemic, and only one type of victimization (being informed that your identity or private information had been stolen) changed; but, contrary to expectations, it decreased in the post-COVID-19 sample. Among the indicators of cyber-routine activities, including playing online games, reading news or other articles online, browsing social media, using computer while working, and shopping online, only reading news or other online articles increased. One online activity, online shopping, even decreased in the post-COVID-19 sample. Among all the specific victimization variables, only one showed a significant difference: there were fewer notifications from companies concerning data theft in the post-COVID-19 sample. In terms of target-hardening behaviors, participants reported using more self-protection (i.e. virus software and firewall) in the post-COVID-19 sample.

Like us, the FBI anticipated that virtual environments will be increasingly affected adversely by cybercriminals (Cimpanu 2020; England 2020; IC3 2020). Research shows a growing level of cybercrime. Cybercrime rates demonstrate steady increase independently of the pandemic (Miró-Llinares & Moneva, 2019). According to Buil-Gil, Miró-Llinares, Moneva, Kemp & Diaz-Castaño (2020) especially online shopping and social media hacking-related victimization increased during the pandemic in the UK. Our research reflects another picture: US individuals sheltering in place in Spring 2020 did not experience more cyber victimization. In some cases, such as getting notifications from companies of identity theft, cyber victimization even decreased.

According to our data, daily routines (Cohen and Felson 1979) have to do with this surprising outcome. People applied more technical protective measures such as firewalls and virus software (capable guardians). Individuals stayed at home together with their families, and other than their daily work done online, likely through their employers’ relatively safe networks, and reading news articles, they did not increase their risky online behavior.

The data might refer to the usual discrepancies between official crime statistics relying on reporting and victimization surveys. The heightened awareness of cybersecurity incidents would then lead them to notice and report these crimes more than they did prior to the pandemic. Another possibility is that the increased rates of reporting to the FBI are more due to attacks on companies than on individual users. It is indeed suggested by official cybercrime reports that under the pandemic, cybercriminals shifted from individuals to governments and critical infrastructures. A further possible explanation is that people focus on their work and related tasks when on the computer and spend more time with their families or caregiving responsibilities. 

Reference

‪The full paper is published here: Hawdon, J., Parti, K., Dearden, T. (2020). Cybercrime in America amid COVID: Initial results of a national experiment, American Journal of Criminal Justice, 45, 546—562; and can be accessed in the PMC COVID database here: https://lnkd.in/dRTv4zc

Contacts

Katalin Parti, Assistant Professor, Virginia Tech

Email: kparti@vt.edu

Thomas Dearden, Assistant Professor, Virginia Tech

Email: tdearden@vt.edu

Twitter: https://twitter.com/deardent

James Hawdon, Professor, Virginia Tech

Email: hawdonj@vt.edu

Twitter: https://twitter.com/cpvp_org

Images courtesy of the authors

After the Pandemic: Criminology and Social Harm after Covid-19

We are in the extraordinary position of being able to observe the genesis of change that is affecting all aspects of our social world

ADiaper

Andy Diaper MA (Crime and Justice) works with vulnerable and excluded people within the community. His research interests are what he calls ‘street life’:  Homelessness, drug dependency/dealing, street drinking, sex work and people who for a variety of reasons enact most of their lives on the street.

 

We are living in exceptional times as Covid-19 appears to be running out of control throughout most of the world. The death toll rises daily at a frightening rate, the fear and tragedy touches everyone’s lives. It feels ever more difficult to get clear and trustworthy information as scientists and politicians in England and indeed from around the world give out contradictory statements. Globalisation has never felt more real or terrifying.  How do we keep ourselves and loved ones safe? Will life ever return to ‘normal’ again? Our collective ontological security is fast slipping away.

Is this a good time to contemplate change? Or to begin planning future research whilst we are surrounded by so much death and pain? The short answer is yes but care and empathy are called for. We are in the extraordinary position of being able to observe the genesis of change that is affecting all aspects of our social world. It is far too early to speculate what changes will occur in the long term but that should not stop tentative exploratory work being carried out now. What better time to start collecting data such as ethnographic inquiry, diaries, collating statistical information now be it false or accurate, the truth can be looked for later.

It is a time of thinking out loud, time to look for the questions to ask, not a time to formulate answers. Perhaps the best way of achieving this is in the form of blogging and social media as opposed to the more formal academic paper. This is also an effective way of reaching a wider audience because of this it is also important to write in an accessible way. Greater reflexivity is required to place us within the research, the epidemic will have touched all our lives. It can be argued that for too long criminology has produced important work deserving of better dissemination, but never gaining the wider recognition it deserves. We are on the cusp of the ‘new normal’ it is an opportunity that cannot be missed.

There has been much speculation on the value of social science during Covid-19. It has been argued that the only science of value concerning the pandemic is medical or related fields such as epidemiology.  This may well be true at the most fundamental level in saving lives and understanding the nature of the virus. The function of the virus is to find hosts to make reproduction possible. However, how the virus can move through populations, who is most vulnerable and at risk is very much the domain of social sciences.

So where does criminology come into play?  At the simplest level it can be seen to fulfil two functions. Firstly, the study of the introduction of the new  ‘The Coronavirus Act 2020’  (2020, Act) and the scope of the effects on our civil liberties. The 2020 Act touches on many aspects either by amending existing statutes or creating new ones. These changes affect many facets of our lives removing some fundamental freedoms: one being the power to restrict public gathering or to prohibit them entirely. It can be argued that when emergency powers are introduced  they can often outlive the original phenomena. Leading to the danger of using the legislation in ways that the Act was not originally created for. There is also the examination of the effects of Covid-19 on crime in general for example the rise in domestic abuse and how some volume crimes appear to have decreased. It will be a time to revisit how we theorise crime.

Secondly there is the social harm perspective to the pandemic. It should be remembered that a zemiological perspective can be used to analyse crime as well as social harm. David Downes famously stated that criminology was a rendezvous discipline and as such zemiology should now be embraced in the same way as sociology or social psychology to give two examples. This is not the place to put a full argument forward on whether it should become a discipline or not. At the time of writing this piece the four nations of the UK are beginning to lift the lock down incrementally. Business and schools  are being urged to re-open despite concerns from elements of the public, press, opposition MP’s and scientists.  On the effect this may have in creating a second spike to the virus, we cannot predict the future, but we can prepare the groundwork for future research. At this time, we do not know what effect this lifting the lock down will have on people’s lives. However, it is not difficult to speculate if this lifting is too early and a second spike is created the devastation could be horrific. It is already tentatively coming to light that the pandemic has affected the vulnerable in society the most. The elderly in care homes, those in poor housing and the lowest paid doing the most dangerous jobs with insufficient protective equipment. Social harm has already occurred, but it could become far worse. It is the time to begin to gather the evidence to build future research even if it does feel very ‘raw’ now. It is also a good time to consider Engels concept of ‘social murder.’

As was said at the beginning this piece contains no answers only questions. By beginning the process when many are struggling to simply get by daily is a big ‘ask’. However, by formulating the questions whilst the pandemic is still all around us, we will form better questions, leading to better research and who knows, answers to better understand and control future disasters.

I will finish on a famous saying from a 1980’s American cop show ‘Hill Street Blues’

‘Let’s be careful out there’

Contact

Andy Diaper, Independent Researcher

Email: Andy.diaper@btinternet.com

Twitter: @andy_diaper

 

Images: courtesy of the author

Working remotely: Criminology in a time of Covid-19

Pace yourself and prioritise. It is too easy to work beyond healthy work limits. Begin to create daily rituals that include breaks.

Dr Charlotte Harris and Dr Helen Jones

How is the BSC – a Society of members with shared interests but geographically disparate –  working during the COVID-19 pandemic? Like you, our sense of normality has changed enormously over the past week. Our sense of ontological security has been rocked.

Many of you will have experience of working from home. It has been part of a working pattern for academics almost since time began. But for most, shared experience was grounded in being present with students through teaching and with colleagues through research activities.  Now, this has  become a more distant set of activities.  And working from home may be even less routine for those who work as criminologists outside academia.   Life has changed perhaps less for us, the paid staff of the BSC, as we routinely work from home and, we wanted to share our experiences – and those of other criminologists – to suggest ideas that might help as we negotiate this isolated and potentially isolating landscape.

Creating a Workspace

As an academic, you might have lots of experience of working from home, or you might have done this infrequently. You might need long-term or short-term ‘fixes’ to help you work remotely. Try to get clarity from your institution of what they are providing. Will your employer pay for your internet costs, pay for an ergonomically suitable workstation (including desk, chair, lighting, webcam, headset). If you need these things immediately, it might be worth buying them now, keeping the receipts and trying to claim the cost back later. But ask first if possible.

You may not have a separate room at home that you can work in. A room divider might be useful to not only give you a blank space behind you when you are on the webcam, but also to pin things to and to screen off your workspace when you are done for the day. Creating a sense of work/home separation is vital to your mental health.

Pace yourself and prioritise. It is too easy to work beyond healthy work limits. Begin to create daily rituals that include breaks. You might be self-isolating but you can still do some stretches in front of a window, brew some tea, set a timer for regular breaks

Sharing a workspace

One thing has changed even for some of us at the BSC office – you will probably not be the only person working from home.  You may have to share workspace with family members, some of them children.  And it won’t be just the children who might struggle to differentiate work and leisure time and contact.  Have set times to take a break, make coffee, establish  a timetable for the ‘oncall’ parent but try and be flexible to spontaneity and the joyous interruption.

Keep a work journal

You might already do this: many people who work remotely do. It is easy to lose track of what you have been doing. At work our day is punctuated by teaching, visiting the library, having a meeting (that is likely to be minuted), or having a coffee with colleague. You do not get this at home, so make a note for yourself of what you have done, what you need to do (and tick those things off your list as you do them) and document decisions taken. Do this and your work doesn’t become invisible.

Communication

Communication is central of effective remote working. You will need ways of clarifying immediate questions, coupled with regular scheduled meetings.  There are a range of tools and your university is responsible for organising this. It might be Slack, Hangout Chats, Skype, Teams or some other communication tool but you shouldn’t have to figure this out for yourself. There has to be an organisational strategy underpinning communication, even in these quickly evolving times.

Your institutional IT protocols should allow you to access all necessary resources remotely.  However, this might take time to arrange and can seem insurmountable if you are not very technologically-minded, and have never had to be.   Don’t panic, most will be sortable.

It might help you (and other people) feel less isolated if you have webcam on. We are visual creatures and it helps to visually connect with others. But if a camera does not work for you, do not feel pressurised to have the camera on. Don’t give in to pressure.

Managing emails

How can we avoid the perils of endless emails? In the era of ‘reply all’ it can feel that every email needs to be responded to, and now. Well they do not. Practice what you want other people to do. If an email is for information only, put those recipients into the C.C. panel and make it clear that they do not have to reply. Just check emails twice a day and also let people know. This allows more reflection time, and you will notice that some of the ‘Urgent’ emails have already been answered. It is about managing expectations, so be clear about what you can and cannot do.

Being human

Even in these pressured and quickly changing (and challenging) days, being present to your colleagues is a good thing. A quick message (entitled ‘Good Morning’), that people know is non-urgent and they do not have to reply to can go a long way to creating a sense of camaraderie. A paragraph of what you did yesterday and what you plan to do today would suffice. Maybe something funny or a small win (‘I got what I needed from the supermarket!’): it doesn’t have to be work related.

Your message may be as small as ‘I’m here’ when you start work, but it helps to create a sense of presence and awareness that we are still here and we still matter. If you feel isolated reach out, to a colleague, to your Faculty head, to us here at the BSC (because we are human too and we have been working remotely for many, many years).

Words of Wisdom from our colleagues

Emma Milne, University of Plymouth – As much as is possible, separate work and home – don’t work on your sofa or bed, work at a table and (ideally) in a spare room. So work stays work and home stays home.

Tim Newburn, LSE – On the issue of extended periods at home trying to write etc, I think the greatest dangers of remote working relate to the absence of (a) structure, and (b) human contact. I try (and often fail, but still try) to have a sense of the shape of the day. It is easier to keep going, ironically, if one has regular breaks. So, dividing the day into chunks tends to help. Then, regular checking in with others is crucial (another thing I’m only too good at letting slide). I think in the coming weeks and months we’ll discover that Skype/Zoom/FaceTime etc and going to be essential tools for keeping in touch with colleagues as well as friends and for looking after our own, and others, mental health. Other than that, I recommend both listening to lots of music and reading lots of fiction. Both are extraordinarily good for the soul.

Vicky Canning, University of Bristol – Time: the amount of time which goes into effective – quality – online teaching should not be underestimated and will shift the current workload model. Online teaching also opens up issues on both the delivery of sensitive materials and copyright with regard to use of online materials and images. Online institutions generally have legal teams to consider potentially libellous claims (such as when discussing corporate crime). This puts individuals at serious risk (I have 3 colleagues taken through court for this) so this should be considered. Also, from a worker rights perspective, we differ from other countries in that our institution owns copyright to our work. Whilst replay actually legally requires our permission to be reused under performance rights (so universities can own it, but not play it without our explicit permission) however this is not the case for lecture slides. As such, it would be good to have a formal agreement in kind from the University that we can delete our materials at the end of term so we are not at risk of writing ourselves out of jobs.

James Treadwell, Staffordshire University –  Firstly, this is not something to fear, and my big lesson is, regardless of your mode of delivery, that a real passion for subject of criminology and a love of debate and teaching cuts across all forms of delivery. I really do believe that. Secondly in the early days it is easy to get concerned about how people react to you when you can’t see them, and that for me is often the big change between in person and online. In my experience many engage with webcams off in live sessions. Do not be too phased by it. Also, do not let recorded sessions make you try and adopt a style that is not you. After a while it becomes second nature. I really like the live online forum because it can actually help to be even more topical, post articles, news stories and things in the message board and be contemporary and you will not have too much to fear about the shift to online.  But as you spend more time delivering in these new ways, find time to do the simple things too, stretch your muscles, do some exercise, spend half hour with a book in the sun in the garden to make up for the time you would walking to and from lectures. It is still important you enjoy your job, but it is a job and it is now coming into a different part of your world. But it is a job. Now more than ever it is vital you do not let it take over that home world.

Emma Williams, Canterbury Christchurch University – Make a call to a colleague every day and talk.

Marian Duggan, University of Kent – Make a (realistic) schedule of the day / week where possible. I have this on a whiteboard, broken into hourly chunks. It is a helpful frame of reference for what I should be doing and when. I also use the Pomodoro Technique (time allocation system) to keep tasks to their allocated time. Info about this is available online. For people (like me) who are unable to keep their working space separate from their general living space, try to get in a routine of setting up and packing away your work stuff to mentally break between ‘work’ and ‘home’.

Lizzie Seal, University of Sussex – Don’t have a 5 year old.

Do you have any other tip that you can share?   Tweet us @BritSocCrim and use the hashtag #WorkingFromHome

 

Copyright free image courtesy of: https://www.lostandfoundinedtech.org/