The impact of cybercrime can be devastating - Vicky Brock

If you were to ask a randomly selected group of people what a victim of crime typically looks like, they might describe a family whose home had been broken into, or perhaps a person who’d been mugged for their phone or wallet.

It has been estimated that cybercrime cost the UK economy £190 billion last year. Picture: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

But these days, the type of crime we are most likely to fall victim to exists online.

Cybercrime is escalating at an alarming rate, which is something being highlighted ahead of Cyber Scotland Week, which gets underway next week.

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Everyone who uses a smartphone or a computer is at risk, and enforcement agencies the world over are concerned about this considerable threat.

Just because it doesn’t involve physical harm or the invasion of someone’s property, it doesn’t mean the impact of cybercrime can’t be devastating.

These crimes can take many forms - online scams, tricking people into giving away sensitive banking details, or the sale of illicit goods over the internet.

Many may even have been exploited by this without knowing it. It can range from a simple online rip-off, where a faulty item is sold online and the customer has issues accessing a replacement or a refund.

Or it can involve people’s life savings being obliterated by a fraudster who has accessed sensitive financial data, or a business which can be robbed of millions of pounds at the click of a button.

Cybercrime is becoming an ever-more attractive area for organised gangs to infiltrate as the rewards for them are huge, and the penalties for being caught are paltry. It has been estimated that cybercrime cost the UK economy £190 billion last year.

The Crime Survey for England and Wales found 3.7million reported incidents in 2019-20 of people being targeted by credit card, identity and cyber-fraud – and the problem is prevalent here in Scotland too.

Coronavirus-related lockdowns – which has pushed so much commerce and general activity online – has only emboldened the criminals.

The sheer scale of involvement from the very worst criminals in cybercrime now represents a genuine threat to national security.

That’s why action on this is needed urgently, and the answer lies in tech solutions.

This has already been recognised by governments here in the UK.

I recently took part in a programme at the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) to learn more about the challenges we face.

Part of the Cheltenham Innovation Centre, the NCSC Cyber Accelerator supports the growth of start-up cyber companies who aim to bring new security products to market.

This not only supports the cyber security industry in the UK, it also generates skills, jobs and growth.

The UK has a target on its back, however there is also an opportunity for Scotland and the UK to harness the skills needed to tackle the global scourge of cybercime.

At Vistalworks, we have developed an intelligence service to help enforcement agencies.

Enforcement is currently hampered by the exponential growth in illicit trade online which is increasingly difficult to detect as visibility is low on the web.

Moreover, the web has enabled criminals to extend beyond the traditional geographic boundaries to serve a global market.

National enforcement agencies are constrained by limited resources, laws which cannot respond quickly enough to the crime landscape, a jurisdictional framework, labour-intensive methods and ever-changing priorities of ministers.

One practical project we have been working on is exposing the threat of the black market in hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – the greenhouse gases used in refrigeration and air conditioning commonly traded on the internet.

It’s the largest black market you’ve never heard of.

The environmental impact of HFCs means a quota system limits how much gas can be placed on the market each year. But this has created shortages, fuelling an illicit market online which has increased during Covid-19, exposing businesses such as builders, farmers and mechanics to illegal and dangerous products – and damaging progress towards tackling climate change goals.

We have identified a technology solution which can highlight to businesses if the HFC product they are buying is likely to be illegal, and gives enforcement agencies the tools they need to tackle this problem.

We hope that COP26 in Glasgow will showcase what can be done so that the UK can lead the world in reducing emissions.

Separately, we’re also exploring tech solutions to address Illegal pesticides which threaten clean growth and can damage farmers’ crops and livelihoods.

For consumers, we have a plug-in checker which can be used by consumers looking for bargains on sites like eBay. They simply paste the URL of the item into the free checker, and we tell them if it’s likely to be legitimate.

The banks have a role to play too. As it stands, there is far too much onus on the customer to carry out checks, research the trader, and ultimately make the call on whether or not to proceed with the transaction.

These institutions have to take on more accountability, forcing out illicit traders and those guilty of suspicious activity.

Cybercrime operates under many guises, from a simple rip-off online to large-scale frauds worth millions.

But it’s getting worse. As the world goes increasingly digital, so too do the inventive and well-resourced criminals.

They specialise in staying ahead of the curve and catching the authorities cold.

If we don’t use all the technology at our disposal to fight back, the consequences for everyone could be severe.

Vicky Brock is founder and CEO of Scotland-based tech firm Vistalworks

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