Police battle to stay ahead of cyber criminals
When it comes to the growing threat of cyber crime, we are all potential targets.
Technology is now involved in almost 50 per cent of all crimes committed, and people are 20 times more likely to be a victim of fraud than robbery.
In the West Midlands the number of cases of identity fraud went up by 29 per cent in the year up to December 2016 - the latest in a succession of rises.
The cost to businesses in the UK is estimated to be a staggering £144 billion a year.
Between July and September last year victims in the West Midlands had nearly £2 million stolen from them through cyber crimes.
And while that may appear high, the real figure is likely to be even bigger as a large proportion of cyber crime goes unreported.
And its not just bank accounts that are being hit.
Police recorded 30,000 instances of online stalking and harassment last year, while the independent think tank Reform estimates that up to 2,500 people in the UK use the most popular dark web server for illegal purposes each day, facilitating 'high-harm' crime such as revenge pornography and child sex abuse.
But are our police forces doing enough in the battle to stay one step ahead of the hackers?
In a new report, Reform says that while many forces - including West Midlands Police - have brought forward innovations to tackle the growing threat, they are woefully under-supported.
The problem is that with budgets being cut to ribbons, the money required to bring in the expertise needed to tackle cyber crime is simply not there.
According to Reform the answer lies in recruiting IT expert volunteers - some 12,000 of them - while ministers have been challenged to pump an extra £450 million into force budgets to pay for new technology including body-worn cameras and augmented-reality glasses.
New technology has already improved police productivity. Body worn cameras - now worn by all 1,261 WMP response officers - have reduced complaints against police nationally by 93 per cent.
Smartphones provide officers with up-to-the-second information on the beat. But the authors argue that police now need the next generation of technology, including smart phone apps that teach officers about new crime trends and technology.
Reform also argues that the Home Office should create a digital academy to train specialist officers in emerging crime-fighting techniques.
Forces also need to make use of a new breed of volunteer.
Currently only 40 of the 13,500 volunteers in police forces are cyber experts. Compare this to Estonia where one per cent of all IT professionals are employed as on-demand volunteers on standby to fight cyber-crime.
Alexander Hitchcock, who co-wrote the report, said: “As people live more of their lives online, they need confidence that the police will help them do this securely.
"Bobbies urgently need the technology, skills and confidence to patrol an online beat.”
Last month WMP launched its first ever Digital PCSO in the shape of Sean Long - one of only four such specialist roles in the country.
He is tasked with offering advice on cyber security and how to stay safe online, and will visit schools, businesses and community groups as part of his role.
Mr Long said: "It’s clear cyber crime is a major threat with as many offences being committed online as in the ‘real world’.
“Falling victim to cyber criminals can prove costly financially, be hugely inconvenient and have an emotional and psychological impact - but there are some simple steps we can all take to minimise the risk and stay safe.
“I’ll be showing how people can beef-up their online security and avoid making mistakes, like giving away too much on their social profiles. I’m really looking forward to the job."
Sergeant Gary Sirrell, a member of the WMP Regional Organised Crime Unit's dedicated cyber crime team, admitted that too often the force's attempts to tackle cyber crime had been hampered by officers not understanding some of the technical jargon involved.
“I’ve sat through some cyber conferences that have been too technical - and to be honest the small percentage of people who were understanding what was being said were the ones that least needed the advice as they were probably already cyber savvy," he said.
He said the new Digital PCSO role could get across 'simple to implement' online safety advice.
“A significant amount of cybercrime could be prevented in the first instance if members of the public were aware of how to protect themselves from becoming victims of online crime," he added.
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