With 4.72 billion internet users (60.1% of the global population), the economies around the world continue to digitize at an increasing rate. Crime is also following quickly. According to Global Anti-Scam Alliance (GASA), in most Western countries online scams are now the most reported type of crime.

The strong increase in scams is not only caused by the accelerated rate of digitalization but also by high inflation, quickly increasing cost of living, and, in some countries, high unemployment rates. This is forcing people to look for new ways to invest or simply make ends meet.

The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) is considered to be the most critical government body in combating cyber threats in the United States. According to the Global State of Scams Report compiled by GASA, in 2022 the total financial loss from all kinds of cyberattacks has grown from $6.9 billion in 2021 to more than $10.2 billion in 2022.

As the GASA report details, scammers are using any crisis to scam people; moving from pre-ordering your coronavirus vaccination in the beginning of 2021, to cheap flight tickets for hajj pilgrims, “supporting” victims of the Australian bush fires, “helping” Ukrainian refugees and more recently, energy crisis government subsidies and tickets to Queen Elizabeth’s funeral memorial.

Following are excerpts of an interview with Professor Jorij Abraham, managing director of GASA.

Q: Although online scams are alarmingly increasing, why are there fewer prosecutions?

A: Because scammers are getting smarter. Professional scammers never scam in their own country because they can more easily be caught. If you scam across the border, the chances of getting caught are less than 0.05%. This is because they are not only more difficult to track but the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation makes sharing data across borders ridiculously difficult and we lack a strong international police force (Interpol/Europol do not have enough power to act and insufficient resources).

Q:  How are politics and black money playing roles in these scams?

A: A lot. We see that the politicians are slow to change legislation to allow international, efficient and fast prosecution. The moral is that countries do not trust other countries enough. In some countries we see that scammers are bribing local law enforcement to protect them from prosecution.

Q: How are big social media platforms like Facebook or media giants like Google being used to promote online scams?

A: They unfortunately play a big role. We see that social media platforms are acting, but slowly. Personally, I see Google moving faster to protect consumers from scams than Facebook, but both still have a long way to go. It is also something they cannot do alone. They need to be able to work closely together with other stakeholders (banks, telecom operators, laws enforcement, cyber security centers) but GDPR legislation is hindering this.

Q: Scammers are becoming more sophisticated and finding ways to stay hidden from the law. Are anti-scam technologies and responsible authorities keeping up with that?

A: No, we are currently losing the battle. If the current trend continues, 50% of all reports to police globally will be related to online scams in a few years. Some countries are already nearly there, like the United Kingdom (41% of all crime reported is related to fraud) and Singapore (50%).

The cause is legislation which has fallen behind a lot, but also a lack of resources made available to law enforcement and a lack of knowledge among both policymakers as well as law enforcement. The only way to win this war is by accelerating change. For example, by creating a separate Interpol team focused on scams. 

Q:  Can you suggest main policy changes for any country, including the United States, in order to prevent online scams?

A: — A unified, national, continuous awareness-building program is required based on international Best Practices, including education from primary school to senior citizen homes, where the results are scientifically proven, and centrally funded in partnership with industry.

— Easy reporting is also very important, and it has several positive effects. Apart from empowering scam victims, it also provides a platform for victims to quickly warn others about dubious sellers. Scam reports can quickly be turned into scam alerts, allowing service providers to take down sites and servers.

— Scam victims need to be given the same support as victims of any other crime at all levels (from municipalities to the national level) and from all perspectives (money recovery, social/psychological and technically, e.g., by offering free scam protection tools and limiting bank transfer options).

— Infrastructure-level protection is necessary due to the fact that consumers often fail to use and update these products if they buy them at all.

— A more effective balance is required between law enforcement and privacy protection. Existing GDPR legislation should be modified to distinguish between companies and persons.

— To combat online scams effectively and efficiently a centralization of the very scarce cybersecurity resources and skills is essential. We suggest that the organization be part of the national police but, as many of the skill sets required overlap with those of the National Cyber Security Center, we also recommend that the allocated organizations be tied together in a kind of fusion center. 

— The data on scams reported nationally needs to be shared globally to find common threats and signals. This not only demands the creation of global data exchange standards but also the removal of barriers to share data.