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

Covering Up: How Covid-19 regulation victimises disabled people in the UK

The Covid-19 virus has had a wide impact in the UK. But how have disabled people been adversely affected by the governments’ regulation of coronavirus?

D WilkinD Wilkin presenting David Wilkin’s specialism is disability hate crime (DHC). His activities include public speaking, lecturing, publishing and consultation work with the UK police and other authorities. David has been both a victim of DHC and is a passionate campaigner to bring these crimes to light. David conducts research on the topic and is in continuing contact with victims of DHC and their associates. In 2020, David was awarded an Honorary Fellowship at the School of Criminology at the University of Leicester. He is also the Lead Coordinator of the UK-based Disability Hate Crime Network.

On June 4th 2020 the UK Secretary of State for Transport announced, as part of the measures to control the Covid-19 pandemic, the mandatory wearing of face coverings on public transport within England and this would commence 11 days later. He did this by way of a Statutory Instrument under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984. Face coverings are not surgical masks but are improvised methods of helping to stymy the spread of the virus in confined spaces by reducing droplets escaping from the mouth and nose. Latterly they became mandatory on public transport in Scotland and in Wales. Staff and police officers are not required to wear coverings but the police can issue a £100 fine for any non-wearing of coverings which is reduced to £50 if paid within 14 days. However, although the wearing of these garments appears to be mandatory, there are a number of exemptions from wearing them for disabled people or for those who might become distressed by wearing face coverings. These exemptions were published by the UK government on 14th June 2020 and were subsequently updated three times. The announcement that these coverings would be mandatory was made on prime-time UK national television, but the exemptions from wearing them did not attract similar exposure. Moreover, this supposedly mandatory requirement has been re-broadcast by both UK bus and railway operators but without the same widespread endorsement of the exemptions. This has resulted in peer-policing of the wearing of coverings – often to the detriment of disabled people who had a legitimate reason for not wearing them. Disabled people have become victims of hostility and abuse for not wearing coverings by other members of the public who may, or may not, be aware of the existence of exemptions.

It additionally became mandatory to wear face coverings in shops in Scotland from 10th July 2020 and in England from 24th July 2020. In preparation for enforcing these regulations Dame Cressida Dick, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, the UKs most senior police officer, said that people not wearing ‘masks’ should be “shamed into complying or shamed to leave the store by the store keepers or by other members of the public” (BBC, 2020). This comment from a national leader seems to justify the peer-policing of people who might actually have a legitimate reason for not wearing a face covering.

Soon after the introduction of mandatory face coverings on public transport, disabled people started to contact the author. At the time of writing 46 notifications had been expressed. One female, who could not wear anything covering her face because of breathing difficulties, was ridiculed by another passenger. The perpetrator addressed fellow train passengers whilst pointing to the victim and blaming her for ‘deliberately infecting other people’ and ‘trying to bring other’s down to her level’. In a similar attack where the victim was portrayed similar to ‘the star of a freak show’, a female perpetrator shouted above the head of the wheelchair-using victim saying that ‘everyone should stand well clear – this one isn’t wearing a mask’. The offender also stated, whilst specifying the victim, that ‘these people are a threat to us all’.

In another incident on a train, a male approached a victim who became distressed when their face was covered and removed the mask. The perpetrator dangled a surgical mask in front of the victim and loudly said ‘put this on’. He was laughing and engaging fellow passengers when he went on to say ‘you lot [disabled people] should be able to afford one of these with all your benefits’. The offender, more threateningly, then said ‘put it on, we don’t want your pox’. The victim then applied the mask to placate the offender but left the train at the next station, unable to complete his journey. During an incident on a bus, the male bus driver told a female using two walking sticks that she could not board without wearing a mask. The victim, with humour, stated that ‘it kept falling off’ and that she ‘had no hands available to hold it on’. The driver, aware of her obvious predicament, then said ‘no mask – no ride’. To seemingly justify his comments he went on to say ‘it’s my job to protect the public on this bus and I’m going to do it’. The victim then applied the face covering but, as predicted, it kept falling off. This brought laughter from some of the other passengers – but the victim ignored this as she needed to attend a medical appointment. The driver also found the situation amusing and laughed loudly.

Aside from direct attacks for not wearing face coverings, disabled people have communicated other Covid-19-related incidents to the author. Socially distanced queuing has now become the norm. Partially sighted people have reported that they have been abused for not socially distancing, a facet which guide dogs have not been trained to accomplish. Moreover, people with some sight impairments are unable to perceive depth and distance. Disabled correspondents have also expressed that they have been pushed out of queues, or that the queue has circumnavigated itself around them so that they are no longer in it. Other disabled people, using wheelchairs or other bulky equipment, have been unable to use their customary route around a railway station because of chairs and tables being placed outside of cafés and bars to necessitate social distancing inside the premises. This, again, has had an especially profound effect on people with limited vision.

The world is in a crisis. State authorities and ordinary people alike are coping with situations which were, until recently, alien to them. Governments need to issue, and occasionally enforce, regulations which were speedily constructed under emergency conditions. Guidance and regulation is arguably necessary to establish public safety and to control the pandemic. However, one thing that is glaringly obvious from these incidents is that governments and national agencies need to broadcast clear and balanced instructions. The use of the word mandatory has led public transport operators and their customers to believe that there is no conceivable choice but to wear face coverings. Furthermore, although exemptions to wearing face coverings have been cited by the UK government, these have not been transmitted with the same urgency or bandwidth as has the need to wear face coverings. Much could be gained, and much victimisation reduced, by the use of measured language and its considered delivery.

Reference

BBC(British Broadcasting Corporation) (2020), Coronavirus: London police to enforce face masks ‘as last resort’, online at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-53498100, (Accessed: 24/07/2020).

Contact

David Wilkin, Honorary Fellow at the School of Criminology, University of Leicester

https://le.ac.uk/criminology/people/honorary/dr-david-wilkin

Lead Coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network

https://www.facebook.com/groups/disabilityhatecrimenetwork

Email: drw25@le.ac.uk

Twitter: @DavidRWilkin

Images: courtesy of the author

Working Together: ‘Invisible’ crimes, victimisations and social harms

The BSC Victims Network hosted their first research planning and writing day. Reflections include participants feedback.

Dr Hannah Bows is currently a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Teesside University. Her research coalesces around age/ageing, victimisation and gender with particular interests in violent crime against older women. Her recent work includes a national study of rape against older people, a national study profiling homicide of older people and a study exploring ‘risk’ in relation to older sex offenders and policing. She is the editor of a forthcoming two-volume edited collection on Violence Against Older Women (Palgrave MacMillan, 2019) and monograph based on her national study of rape against older people (Routledge, 2018). Outside of the university, she is the deputy director of the BSC Victims Network, Chair of Age UK Teesside and sits as a Magistrate on the Durham and Darlington bench. From August 2018 she will be taking up the role of Assistant Professor in Criminal Law at Durham University.

Professor Pamela Davies lectures in Criminology in the Department of Social Sciences at Northumbria University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Pam’s main research interests are victimological and connect to criminal and non-criminal types of victimisation and social harm. She has a particular focus on gender, crime and victimization and has engaged in research and evaluations of gender based violence.  Pam has published widely on the subject of victims, victimization and social harm and on how gender connects to matters of community safety. She has authored Gender, Crime and Victimisation (Sage) and has co-edited a number of texts including Victims, Crime and Society (2007, 2017), Invisible Crimes and Social Harms (2014) and Doing Criminological Research (2000, 2011, 2018).

 

As we write this, the BBC is airing The Stephen Lawrence Story. This brutal murder and three part documentary of it is a chilling reminder of the vocabularies of victimization. The death of Stephen provoked a fight for justice by his parents, which has changed the landscape of policing and race relations. This and other well publicized forms of criminal victimization including sexual exploitation and systematic abuse of vulnerable young people in our neighborhoods and the continued efforts to tackle violence against women and girls are sad indictments of life in 21st century Britain.

The BSC Victims Network is a collection of people within the criminology community who have interests around victims of crime and social harm, survivors and resilience. We are committed to raising awareness of ‘invisible’ crimes, victimisations and social harms and to securing justice for those experiencing or affected by crime, atrocities, disasters and injustices through our scholarly activities. The Network facilitates the cross-national exchange of work and ideas relating to these concerns under the shorthand label ‘victims’.  The network brings individuals together to facilitate and promote theory development and research. It provides an arena for information exchange, critical analysis and debate across the research, policy and practice communities – nationally and internationally – encourages networking between academics, researchers, practitioners and students, and looks for opportunities to secure research or consultancy income.

On 26 March 2018, the British Society of Criminology Victims Network (BSCVN) hosted the first research planning and writing day for 17 members at Sheffield Hallam University. Participants immersed themselves in thinking about, discussing and writing about some of the most seriously debilitating experiences imaginable including the direct and indirect impact of criminal and non- criminal forms of victimization, harm and suffering. The day was divided into two parts: established academics met to discuss research ideas or plans, develop networks and collaborations and discussed funding opportunities and early career academics and postgraduate students took part in a writing day, with each ECR/PG assigned to one of the established academics for mentoring and supporting.

The day kicked off over coffee (of course) at 9.30am, where all delegates introduced themselves and their research and outlined their plans and goals for the day: most members had a specific book, chapter or journal article that they wanted to work on and most set an ambitious target of 500 words by the end of the day. Following this, the writers convened and spent the morning writing with mentoring support built in. After a delicious lunch, featuring cake and coffee, members reconvened to discuss how the morning had gone and revise/confirm their goals/targets for the afternoon session. Professor Davies provided an overview of her and Professor Matthew Hall’s current book series on ‘Victims and Victimology’ and explained the publishing process for those interested in submitting proposals.

A general discussion of publishing, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and approaches to writing followed before members returned to writing and/or research planning. At the end of the day, members reconvened to reflect on how the day had gone, what they had achieved and what their goals were going forward.

I just wanted to thank you (and Hannah – who I’ll also email) so much for organising such a brilliant day. I really appreciated the opportunity to meet new colleagues and the time away from my institution to think. It was a very valuable day and I am still working my way through the list of ideas and “to dos” and feeling quite inspired!

The day provided a much-needed opportunity for members to have dedicated time to write/plan research and discuss ideas, challenges and opportunities with colleagues. The day was supportive and feedback during and after the event attested to the importance of having the time and space to write, and to the benefit of having the opportunity to talk with colleagues, discuss tips and the ups and downs of writing, and bounce around ideas.

Thanks again for a great day

 – what a good day it was! Thanks so much (and to Hannah) for organising – it was a productive and thoroughly enjoyable day! I hope you both got home ok? 

Thank you very much for the BSC Victims Day. It was a very productive day and great to meet some new faces….

 I just want to thank you for a very useful and constructive day. I really enjoyed the balance of writing and networking/collaborating – the day was well structured.

Following this success, we hope to organise similar events in the future. Watch this space!

If you want to join us, do subscribe to our jisc list here – www.jiscmail.ac.uk/BSCVICTIMSNETWORK

Contact

Hannah Bows – Teesside University

Email: hannah.bows@durham.ac.uk

Twitter: @Hannah_Bows

Pamela Davies – Northumbria University

Email: pamela.davies@northumbria.ac.uk

 

Copyright free image: from BSC website