Monday, March 28, 2022

Big jump in losses due to Internet crimes in 2021, up 64% according to latest IC3/FBI report

IC3/FBI internet crime data graphed by S. Cobb
In 2021, the world came to rely on digital technologies even more than it had in 2020. Sadly, but quite predictably, at least from my perspective, 2021 also saw a lot more sleazy digital scams and dastardly data breaches than 2020. 

How much more were the estimated losses suffered by individuals and businesses who reported internet crimes to IC3 in 2021? They were up 64% over 2020 according to the recently published 2021 Internet Crimes Report from the FBI and IC3, the Internet Crime Complaint Center.

The annual figure for this Internet crime metric rose from US$4.2 billion in 2020 to US$6.9 billion in 2021. That's almost a doubling in two years, from the 2019 figure of US$3.5 billion. The rise in losses from 2020 to 2021 was the second steepest annual increase in the last decade (2017-2018 saw a 91% jump).
While there are some issues with using the IC3 numbers as crime metrics—they were not originally collected as an exercise in crime metrics, but rather as an avenue of attack against the crimes they represent—I have studied each IC3 annual report and am satisfied that they reflect real world trends in cybercrime's impact on victims, as measured by direct monetary loss. (You can find out more about this in my article, Advancing Accurate and Objective Cybercrime Metrics in the Journal of National Security Law & Policy.)

When you put a 64% rise in annual internet crime losses in the context of record levels of spending on cybersecurity in recent years, it says to me that current strategies for securing our digital world against criminal activity are not working as well as they should. For more on cybercrime metrics relative to cybersecurity efforts, see this blog post from last year.

For more on the work that IC3 and the FBI do, please download the 2021 report, and any of the previous reports. If you're a criminology or risk and security geek like me, they make for interesting reading. The report lets you see which types of crime were on the increase in 2021—e.g. there is a growing overlap between romance scams and cryptocurrency fraud—and what steps IC3 has been taking to mitigate scams. The report's chart of losses by age group in 2021 was frankly depressing: older members of society are being hit hard by digital scammers.

What's next for cybercrime and its victims?

Firstly, I think we have to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that, as human activities go, the abuse of digital systems for selfish ends has been a runaway success. Second, we need to realize that we are all victims of this success, regardless of whether or not we have lost any money as a direct result on such abuse. 

As I have said elsewhere, the psychological impact of internet crime creates significant costs, to victims and to society. People lose self-esteem, confidence, and trust. They may need counselling. Their productivity may suffer. Unfortunately, we have not done a good job of measuring harms from criminal abuse of digital systems that are not easily summed up as "how much did you lose?" 

One recent step in the right direction was research in the UK prompted by the consumer group Which? and reported here by the BBC. As the article states, the annual cost of the impact of scams on wellbeing was calculated to be £9.3 billion (roughly US$13 billion). The research suggested  that "scam victims faced a drop in life satisfaction, significantly higher levels of anxiety, and lower levels of happiness." In addition, some victims reported "worse general health." Those findings echo this one in 2014 from the non-profit senior support organization Age UK: "older [scam] victims are 2.4 times more likely to die or go into a care home than those who are not scammed." 

When you translate these non-financial harms into the costs they produce: "The average drop in wellbeing for victims of fraud has been valued at £2,509 per year. For online fraud, this estimate is even higher at £3,684" (Which?). 

Now, if assume that this UK estimate holds true in the US and turn £3,684 into US dollars we get roughly $5,000 per victim. I know this is guesswork, but I'd really love to see some entity replicate the Which? research in the US. Because, if that $5,000 proves to be a valid assumption, and we multiply it  by the number of people reporting crimes to IC3 (847,376 in 2021) we get a figure that represents: "the personal and social cost of Internet crimes reported to IC3 in 2021 in addition to the reported financial losses." 

And that number is a whopping US$4.2 billion (which is a bit uncanny because that same figure was the IC3 financial loss total for 2020). Then, if you put that US$4.2 billion together with the IC3 loss number for 2021 (US$6.9 billion) you're looking at an attention-grabbing annual impact for reported Internet crime of more than US$11 billion; hopefully, enough attention to get more public resources channeled into Internet crime prevention and victim support.

  • A detailed look at the impact of fraud in general, 24-page PDF of a chapter from the book Cyber Frauds, Scams and Their Victims by Cassandra Cross and Mark Button, 2017.
  • The Fight Cybercrime website which has a lot of helpful info for victims of online fraud, in 12 languages!
  • The source for the statistic that "older [scam] victims are 2.4 times more likely to die or go into a care home than those who are not scammed" — PDF of Age UK report, 2016.