Blackmail, viewing indecent images of children and threats to kill are among a raft of cybercrimes being committed in Sussex, a Johnston Press investigation has found.
The investigations unit’s four-month project found the county was not alone in experiencing a tidal wave of offences, with forces nationwide which replied to Freedom of Information requests reporting a rise of nearly 90 per cent in the last year.
Yet figures obtained by the unit show forces on average are dedicating just one per cent of their budgets to the growing problem – and experts have warned chronic under-reporting is masking the true extent of the issue.
In Sussex, the extensive investigation into cybercrime also found:
– More than 267,000 residents’ details are being sold by criminals for use in fraud
– Above average levels of people scammed while online dating, shopping on auction sites and by fraudsters offering to ‘fix’ computers
– A quartet of councils targeted by multiple cyber attacks
– Police investigating scores of offences committed using computers
– Detectives working on a budget of less than £500,000 to combat cybercrime across two counties
Despite the scale of the issue, Sussex Police’s top cyber detective insisted they were up to the challenge.
Detective Inspector Robert Walker, who heads up the Surrey and Sussex Police Cybercrime Unit at Haywards Heath Police Station, said: “It is really important people understand that the digital world will leave a digital footprint and we are here in a very robust capacity to track people down if they are committing a crime and bring them to justice.”
The cross-force unit was opened in 2014, funded partly through an increase in the police precept in recognition of the growing threat cybercrime presents.
The unit works closely with regional and national crime-fighting organisations, including the South East Regional Organised Crime Unit (SEROCU) and the National Cyber Security Centre.
JP Investigations requested data from every force in the UK, under the Freedom of Information Act.
It asked for a three-year breakdown of cybercrime figures and conviction rates to gauge the trends.
Sussex Police sent only a partial response, 30 working days after the statutory deadline for responding.
Its figures, for the 2015 calendar year, revealed reports of 259 cyber-related offences.
Most prolific were cases of ‘obscene publications’, including indecent images, accounting for 168 of the crimes.
Also listed were 43 cases of harassment, eight blackmail incidents and sexual activity with children, among others.
But the list did not take account of a raft of ‘cyber-dependent’ crimes, recorded by national body Action Fraud.
Much of this type of crime, including computer fraud and hacking incidents, goes under-reported, with victims often too embarrassed or worried about reputational damage to come forward. They may also even be simply unaware they have been targeted.
A survey of more than 11,000 residents across the south east last year revealed 84 per cent had been affected by cybercrime but just 31 per cent reported offences to the authorties.
The National Crime Agency, which leads the fight on organised crime, warned earlier this month: “Under-reporting of cybercrime remains a key barrier to our understanding of its true scale and cost.”
See this week’s paper and this website throughout this week for a special series of articles outlining the threat cybercrime poses.
Forces’ cybercrime budget less than £500k
A two-county unit set up to combat cybercrime is run on a fraction of the overall policing budget, Freedom of Information requests show.
The Surrey and Sussex Police Cybercrime Unit was formed in 2014, with the forces allocating a total budget of £392,984, according to the FOIs.
They showed that by the 2016/17 financial year, combined resources amounted to £431,464, slightly less than the £433,669 budget of 2015/16.
The contributions of both forces have varied since 2014.
Sussex started with a £250,510 budget in 2014/15, reducing to £219,947 in the last financial year.
Surrey’s initial budget was lower, at £142,474 and rose to £211,517 last year.
Before 2014, neither force had a budget allocated specifically for cybercrime.
Unit lead Detective Inspector Robert Walker said: “Cybercrime is a key area of development for Surrey Police and Sussex Police. We have a dedicated cybercrime unit which is recognised as good practice by the College of Policing.
“The unit is supported by 34 active Digital Media Investigators (DMIs) across both forces, all of whom have received College of Policing training and undergo support from the unit. We are also looking to increase the number of DMIs across Surrey Police and Sussex Police.”
The unit also has support from regional and national centres, meaning it is not alone in the cybercrime fight.