Primary school children in South Yorkshire are being sucked into involvement in serious computer crimes, The Star can reveal.
On six occasions in the past three years, South Yorkshire Police have dropped cyber crime investigations after discovering suspects in their cases were under ten years old, which is the age of criminal responsibility.
And more than 100 other children aged 17 and under were the focus of criminal investigations linked to the internet in South Yorkshire in the same period, figures released under Freedom of Information laws reveal.
Senior police officers today said many children stumble into cyber crime through online gaming forums.
It comes as an investigation by The Star and its sister titles today reveals that South Yorkshire Police has experienced a 135 per cent rise in cyber crime offences in the past year.
Since 2014, in South Yorkshire, 19 children have received police cautions for involvement in cyber crime, with a further 87 young people aged between 10 and 17 given community resolution/restorative justice orders in which the offender accepts responsibility and apologises to their victim. A further three children investigated over computer crime were given cautions for alternative offences.
DCI Vanessa Smith, from the Yorkshire and Humber regional cyber crime unit, said there have been cases across the country involving children of around 12 years old.
“They are on gaming sites. Gaming is a portal into using IT as a form of interacting,” she said.
“It is happening across the UK.”
It comes after the National Crime Agency warned that the average age of suspects they are investigating for cyber crime offences is just 17.
An NCA report said: “Debrief intelligence illustrates that the majority of those engaged in, or on, the periphery of, cybercrime become involved via an interest in computer gaming.
“We assess that it is likely that these results would be replicated across all UK individuals engaged in cyber-dependent criminality.”
In one recent NCA operation, seven teenagers all aged under 18 were arrested for using a Distributed Denial of Service tool called ‘Lizard Stresser’ which was deployed to knock websites offline by flooding them with data.
During another NCA operation, a 12-year-old was among 22 people arrested for using malicious software to remotely monitor and take full control of other people’s computers. The average age of the 22 people arrested was 18.
An NCA report published earlier this year found some offenders begin offending by participating in gaming cheat forums before progressing on to criminal hacking forums.
The report said many are not driven by money but instead enjoy the sense of accomplishment, as well as boosting their reputation among their online peers.
One 18-year-old, arrested for obtaining unauthorised access to a US Government website, said: “I did it to impress the people in the hacking community, to show them I had the skills to pull it off. I wanted to prove myself, that was my main motivation.”
DCI Smith said: “Some of it is like bragging. They are bragging about being able to do x, y and z.”
The NCA says that in contrast to the image of lonely children on their computers in their bedrooms, those involved in cyber crime actually see it as something of a social activity as they build relationships with others involved.
Rather than criminalising those who are caught, efforts are being made to direct the often highly-intelligent children involved towards careers in cyber security.
More than 80 ‘cease and desist’ visits have been carried out by the NCA in which children involved in the fringes of cyber crime have been visited to warn them to stop their involvement since November 2013.
The NCA report said: “We have high confidence that a number of UK teenagers who would not otherwise be involved in ‘traditional’ crime are becoming involved in cyber crime.”
It added: “The skill barrier to entry in cyber criminality is lower than it has ever been. Off-the-shelf hacking tools, which require very limited technical expertise to utilise, are available at little to no cost.
“Many illegal products are advertised openly on low level hacking or gaming forums. Video guides and step-by-step tutorials on how to use these products are readily available on the open web.
“These circumstances have created an environment in which more young people are becoming involved in cyber crime.
“Many offenders cross from non-criminal online behaviour into outright illegality without considering or fully comprehending the transgressions and its consequences.”
Children involved are said to be ‘overwhelmingly male’ but come from a wide variety of backgrounds. The NCA said autism spectrum disorder “appears to be more prevalent among cyber criminals than the general populace, though this remains unproven”.
DCI Smith said that in Yorkshire the Government has provided funding to hire four specialist officers to promote the ‘Prevent and Protect strategy’ designed to reduce the risk of people falling victim to cyber crime.
“We are trying to prevent people becoming part of that world.”
She said organising things like coding competitions, where children show off their abilities at programming web pages, are being delivered to help young people direct their IT skills to legitimate uses.
“We can identify the coders of tomorrow today and provide events to use their skills in a good way. You are also identifying the children who might feel their skills aren’t being recognised.”
Cyber crime on the rise
South Yorkshire has experienced a 135 per cent rise in cyber crime offences - but thousands of cases have ended up being dropped in the past three years because of problems identifying suspects.
Recent offences reported in the county with a connection to the internet include child rape, bigamy, drug trafficking, blackmail and kidnapping.
South Yorkshire Police today said around half of all offences reported to it has some cyber crime link - but it only set up a specialist team to tackle the problem this April with just a handful of staff employed and no dedicated budget.
Detective Inspector Steve Leach, who is part of the new cyber unit, said: “We accept that we are in the early stages of developing our strategy and team, however we are focused on bringing offenders to justice.”
In 2016/17, 2,603 offences with a link to cyber crime were reported to South Yorkshire Police, up from 1,109 the year before.
DI Leach said increased public awareness of computer crime and “public confidence” in coming forward was behind the rise.
There have been a total of 4,310 cyber crime incidents in the county in the past three years, but in more than 2,000 cases were dropped either because no suspect could be identified or “evidential difficulties” involving suspects.
In 830 instances, investigations were ended with no suspect identified and in 1,203 cases the police or CPS decided a lack of evidence against an individual meant charges could not be brought.
In 131 cases, it was decided it was not in the public interest to proceed with an investigation.
In a further 982 cases, no charges were brought after victims said they did not support police action, while on five occasions a suspect was deemed to be too ill to prosecute. One person under suspicion died before any case could be brought.
However, 272 were charged with cyber crime offences, with 79 people issued with a court summons. 88 people were given a police caution for involvement in cyber crime.
In 93 cases, the investigation was passed on to another agency.
But the true extent of cyber crime in the county is believed to be even more serious than the official figures show.
Nationally, it is estimated fewer than one in 100 cyber crimes are being reported to the police.
In South Yorkshire, the new cyber crime team is currently made up of four cyber and digital media investigators who have been seconded from other posts as part of a crime review.
There is no dedicated budget for the team, who are supported by 18 digital forensic examination officers who work across different departments within the force.
The current aim of the team, described as being ‘in its early stages’, is to understand the demand across the force and review the current picture, as well as identifying future threats.
DI Leach said: “Cyber crime, in the widest sense, accounts for around 50 per cent of all crime in our force and is a growing threat nationally.
“Our team was set up as we recognised the need to better understand what the demands are here in South Yorkshire.
“We are working to identify who our victims are, what they are victims of and how we can protect the public against this growing threat.”
Challenges for police
Police running South Yorkshire’s new cyber unit admit they face a huge challenge in catching “faceless” online criminals who could be based anywhere in the world.
It comes as the National Crime Agency warned the primary online threat to the UK “continues to stem from Russian-speaking countries” but added such criminal activity is becoming “increasingly global”.
But the number of ‘elite-level’ cyber criminals are now believed to have more British-based criminal associates than previously thought.
Detective Inspector Steve Leach, from the South Yorkshire Police cyber-crime unit, said: “The biggest difficulty we have is that cyber crime is largely a faceless crime. Identifying offenders is made tougher by the fact that these crimes can be committed anywhere via the internet.
“We are committed to progressing our team, our skills and structures at South Yorkshire Police to get ahead of the game and keep those most vulnerable safe.”
Andrew Beckett, a former cyber defence expert at GCHQ, which leads Britain’s cyber defence capabilities, said the UK and other developed countries are “on the losing end of an arms race” in which organised crime groups and hostile states are deploying powerful online tools to net millions of pounds a day and affect daily life with attacks such as the ransomware assault which earlier this year disrupted the NHS.
Nationally, a four-month investigation by the Johnston Press Investigations Unit, involving The Star and its sister titles, has found the number of cyber offences investigated by police has risen by almost 90 per cent in the last year.
Fraud is now estimated to cost the British economy as much as £193bn a year - significantly more than the £122bn annual cost of the NHS - with 70 per cent of those offences enabled using computers.
The Government itself has acknowledged that some police forces are doing too little to tackle cyber crime, with one minister citing the Game of Thrones television series by warning “winter is coming” concerning online crime and fraud.
Security minister Ben Wallace called on victims of cyber crime to report offences but revealed that seven police forces have no dedicated fraud or cyber crime unit.
Mr Wallace said: “This thing is only going to go one way, it is growing and the barriers to entry for cyber fraud are lowering on an almost daily basis.”
Lynne Owens, director general of the NCA, revealed even criminals with low technological skills are being empowered to commit “large-scale, high impact offences” by paying to hire specialist hacking software.
Among those being increasingly targeted are people using adult dating and pornography sites, while businesses are falling prey to sophisticated frauds where criminals impersonate high-ranking members of organisations and trick colleagues into redirecting money transfers.
Plea to parents
Parents have been urged to keep an eye on their children’s online activities after it was revealed primary school children in South Yorkshire have been investigated for serious cyber crime offences.
Detective Inspector Steve Leach, head of cyber crime said: “The vast majority of children enjoy the educational and social benefits of the internet without incident but, like adults, there is risk to children when they’re accessing information or communicating digitally.
“However, with just a little input from parents, children can be kept safe while enjoying their free time.
“Getting to know what youngsters are viewing, restricting what they can access and just having a quick chat about what they’re doing and what sites they’re visiting can be enough to prevent your child from becoming a victim. Some people don’t want to look like they’re snooping or be seen to be taking a Big Brother approach to their children, but I’d urge them to take at least a brief overview of their children’s online activity.”
Have you been a victim of cyber crime or have family members been sucked into the online underworld? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0113 2388913 to share your story.