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Top cop calls for tougher sentencing of cybercrooks

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Cybercrims should get tough sentences, according to the head of Scotland Yard's e-crime unit, who criticised judges for going easy on e-banking fraudsters while throwing the book at the their old-school cohorts in crime.

Det Supt Charlie McMurdie expressed frustration that cyber-fraudsters, such as those convicted as the result of Operation Lath and Operation Pagode, tended to receive softer sentences than those committing regular robbery or fraud.

"Sentencing is still an issue," McMurdie said, the BBC reports. "Some of these people have made millions and if it was fraud or robbery they would get eight or 10 years but they get less because it's cybercrime."

Operation Pagode involved the operations of a underground cybercrime forum where as many as 8,000 people traded stolen credit card details as well as drug-making kits. The site, GhostMarket.net – described by cops as the biggest English-speaking forum of its kind in the world or a Facebook for cybercrooks – was run by a pair of 18-year-olds. The duo were initially arrested for trying to pay a hotel bill with a stolen credit card before they skipped bail and were re-arrested at Gatwick with a laptop containing more than 100,000 stolen credit card details. After the Gatwick arrest, the pair were jailed for four and five years, respectively. Other suspects were jailed and convicted of various cybercrime offences in the same case.

Operation Lath resulted in the conviction and imprisonment of two Ukranian nationals over a banking Trojan scam estimated to have involved the theft of £3m from victims' bank accounts. Pavel Klikov, 29, and Yevhen Kulibaba, 33, from Chingford, Essex, were each jailed for four years and eight months, a sentence McMurdie argued failed to reflect the severity of their crimes.

"Sentencing powers are sufficient but it's the appreciation of the harm these individuals are causing that is lacking," she said. "In total some of these cases involve £5m or £6m. People think there are no victims, no one loses out because individuals get their money back from the banks. But it's a loss to the UK economy and a gain for that criminal organisation."

Does the punishment fit the crime?

So are stuffy old judges being soft on cybercrooks? Actually the reality might be a bit more complex than that. Judges have to operate within sentencing guidelines that will look at a convicted suspects age, mental state, previous criminal form, and whether they co-operated with police and made an early guilty plea. After surveying these guidelines, judges must decide whether to add to or subtract from a tariff, which can be related to how much was stolen (for example), in working how long the criminals should be imprisoned or how much of a fine and time on probation they ought to spend, for lesser offences.

Judges like to have testimony from victims on how much they have lost out from a crime, something that's often difficult to come by in the case of cybercrimes. Estimates on how much might have been obtained via a scam plays well in the press but simply won't do in court. What judges want is testimony from victims or, almost as good or even better from the point of view of recovering proceeds of crime, property or cash or saleable goods tied to a suspect whose acquisition can't be explained via legitimate receipts or paperwork.

Basing sentencing on estimates of how much a crime might have netted simply won't do. If judges ignore sentencing guidelines and apply tough sentences based on an estimate, it is probable if not inevitable that any sentence they impose will get reduced on appeal. This is something I've seen for myself firsthand, in reporting the sentencing of Welsh VXer Simon Vallor. Judge Geoffrey Rivlin wanted to know what financial losses had occurred as a result of Vallor's creations. Even hard figures from MessageLabs on how many times it had blocked Vallor's creations were of no real use to him. Admittedly this was all eight years ago, but much the same sentencing process applies even now.

So McMurdie would do better to come up with schemes to persuade victims of cybercrime to testify, a very difficult process, rather than criticising judges.

Victims of cybercrime are sometimes harder to identify than victims of conventional crime, where the extra personal element is a factor in motivating testimony. Identified victims of cybercrime are often companies that are reluctant to come forward, partly because they do not want their security failings aired in open court.

Old lags don't change

Asked whether traditional criminals were switching to cybercrime – a logical move if McMurdie is to be believed and the danger of serving a long stretch behind bars is much reduced – the police boss suggested old lags were too set in their ways to change.

"There is no significant intelligence that old-fashioned 'blaggers' have become cyber hackers," McMurdie said in a BBC report. "They wouldn't understand it. Nor have I evidence of old-fashioned gangsters commissioning cybercriminals."

Ouch.

After years failing to recognise the damage caused by e-crime, disbanding the former NHTCU and failing to set up a cybercrime reporting structure, the UK government has finally begun to act.

The government was allocated £650m to fight cybercrime, providing an increased budget that has allowed the PceU team to expand from 20 officers to 104. Three new regional regional e-crime units – in north-west England, the East Midlands and Yorkshire/Humberside – are due to begin operations in January.

Threats the PceU will have to grapple with next year include online ticketing fraud and other cyber-threats linked to next year's London Olympics. ®

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