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Volume of computer misuse incidents falling, says ONS

Downward trend comes despite an overall increase in fraud, according to new statistics

Incidents of computer misuse – actions contravening the Computer Misuse Act of 1990 – in England and Wales dropped 21% year-on-year to an estimated one million in the year to March 2019, bucking an overall upward trend in overall incidents of fraud, according to new analysis produced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Overall, there were an estimated 3.8 million incidents of fraud in England and Wales in the 12-month period examined, resulting in a financial loss in 76% of cases. One in seven of these incidents was reported to Action Fraud or the police, according to the statistics, which were drawn from the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) and incidents referred to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) by Action Fraud, Cifas and UK Finance.

The rise has been driven by growth in consumer and retail fraud, and in bank and credit card account fraud.

It is important to note that computer misuse cannot necessarily be defined as cyber crime per se because the definition in law does not include acts such as criminal harassment via social media. Rather, as 30-year old legislation, it covers “computer viruses” and “unauthorised access” to a computer. This includes malware and ransomware attacks, hacking, and distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks.

Of the incidents of computer misuse reported, about one in five resulted in unauthorised access to files or data loss, while in one in eight cases, a ransom demand for money to release files or data was made. Financial loss occurred in about 15% of cases, more common was merely loss of time or inconvenience. In 55% of computer misuse incidents, victims claimed they were not impacted at all.

Overall, the decrease was driven by falls in virus activity over the surveyed period, unauthorised access to personal information, including hacking, was stable.

Computer misuse offences were, overall, more likely to be committed against men than women and more likely against younger people than the over-75s, likely due to a generally lower rate of device ownership in older demographics.

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The ONS reported that the majority of adults now take some basic cyber security precautions to stay safe online, and that the proportion of adults taking such precautions is rising, which may account for the falls. The majority – 76% – of people are now more inclined to delete suspicious-looking emails without opening them, and 78% are more cautious about using free public Wi-Fi networks.

However, the picture is not necessarily as clear as it might appear, because reporting of computer misuse offences is rising. Data sourced from Action Fraud found a total of 21,322 offences in the 12-months to the end of March 2019, up 1% on the previous year and the third consecutive rise.

The ONS said that this was likely due to growing awareness of cyber security making people more likely to report cyber crime. It also noted that many crimes such as ransomware extortion and hacking are far more likely to target businesses, and as these are not captured by the CSEW it was not surprising to see that the data differed.

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