It’s no secret that internet fraud skyrocketed last year, with cybercriminals targeting people working from home due to COVID-19 lockdowns. In 2020, reported losses to cyberscams and other online crimes exceeded $4.2 billion, according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.
What motivates internet scammers? Before you parrot that famous line by bank robber Willie Sutton — “That’s where the money is” — you might want to talk to Alain Claude Tambe Ebot, PhD, assistant professor in the Zicklin School’s Paul H. Chook Department of Information Systems and Statistics.
Dr. Tambe Ebot, who joined the Zicklin School in January, has interviewed both cyber-offenders and their victims for his research, which combines elements of criminology and psychology to examine the behavioral side of information security. “Most of these offenders come from developing countries,” he notes, “and they always claim to be motivated by economic hardship.”
“But it’s not so simple,” he adds. “Most people who need money don’t become internet scammers, nor do most people in developing countries.” Indeed, research suggests these criminals don’t need the money; one study showed that only 15 percent of cybercriminals spent their revenues on immediate needs, such as paying bills or buying groceries.
It may not be about economic hardship, but money is still a strong motivator. Tambe Ebot notes that cybercriminals tend to live extravagantly; they want to make a lot of money and spend it quickly, often on flashy items like fancy cars or jewelry to impress their partners in crime. With its anonymity and worldwide reach, the internet facilitates these offenses. In other words, it’s the nature of cyberspace itself—the “digital environment,” as Tambe Ebot calls it.
“The fact that it’s so hard to identify internet scammers definitely motivates these crimes,” he says. “It’s very easy to falsify identities on the internet and there’s a wide pool of potential victims around the world. It’s also very affordable—the main cost is just the cost of the internet itself.”
The internet’s anonymity works both ways: Victims don’t know the scammers’ true identities, making it difficult to stop their crimes. And the fact that scammers don’t know their victims makes it easier to take advantage of them without remorse, Tambe Ebot notes. Sometimes this can be reversed: “Some cyber-offenders have told me they were contacted afterwards by their victims, and when they found out, let’s say, that it was a single mother who needed the money to take care of a sick child, they felt guilty because they’d gotten to know the victims a bit.”
But the best way to deter such crimes, he continues, is through the technology itself. Each time someone on Facebook or Instagram, for example, registers a complaint about a scammer account and the account winds up blocked, it demotivates the scammer. “Some have even abandoned scamming altogether,” Tambe Ebot says.
But even this strategy is limited: “Scammers are always evolving their tactics,” Tambe Ebot offers. “It comes down to a race between the offenders and the social media platforms they rely on.”