If a college student dons their Gucci gear and heads to a London 2012 Olympic Games ticket gate, they may have presented three opportunities to internet scammers, and also three to the council trading standards officers who are pioneering an initiative against electronic crime.
Colleges that pocket enrolment fees for bogus qualifications, traders who sell counterfeit designer goods and websites that trade in fake event tickets are all in the project’s sights.
Just as criminals have taken to the internet, so must those who seek to stop them. Which is why consumer affairs minister Kevin Brennan has launched an £800,000 project to equip and train trading standards officers for cyberspace, some of whom will serve in attachments to police e-crime teams.
“The profession has invaluable skills and experience fighting scams in the non-virtual world that will now be put to excellent use in the cyber teams,” says Ron Gainsford, chief executive of the Trading Standards Institute.
The initiative is being run collectively by the trading standards departments of London, south east and east of England councils, which will provide a national service.
Project steering group chair Karen Ford, trading standards manager at Milton Keynes Council, says the next two years will be crucial.
If you go to sites and look for products like, say, Ugg boots, within seconds you will find ones that are counterfeit
Karen Ford, trading standards manager, Milton Keynes Council
“Over two years there will be a programme to train trading standards officers in internet investigations. Equipment will be supplied, including stand-alone computers so that test purchases can be made,” she says.
As Ms Ford points out, the web is full of scam sites ready to devour customers’ cash. Investigating officers need to make test purchases to secure evidence, without their computers being ‘pinged’ and traced to a council. The stand-alone computers cannot be traced.
There is much for officers to seek - and find. “If you go to sites and look for products like, say, Ugg boots, within seconds you will find ones that are counterfeit,” says Ms Ford.
“Bogus colleges that target overseas students are another problem, particularly in London and ticket scams will grow with the Olympics,” she adds.
The initiative is a joint one with the Office of Fair Trading and has a deeper purpose than simply catching cyber criminals.
“The OFT is targeting this because the internet is a fantastic marketplace but people lack confidence to use it because they have had bad experiences of goods not arriving, or personal details being stolen. It wants to tackle this crime to give consumers confidence in shopping online,” says Ms Ford.
Trading standards officers will begin test purchasing in April, with each region being allocated a different commercial field.
This exercise will be repeated next year, after officers have received specialised training, to monitor any significant differences.
“By the end of the project, it is intended that there will be a virtual team with a wealth of skill and ability to carry out e-crime investigations,” the project proposal bid states.
Each region will gather and share intelligence on internet crime, or pass this to the OFT in the case of scams originating oversees.
Fighting cyber crime
Ms Ford says there is a range of software available that will enable officers to fight cyber crime.
“There are programmes that will capture an entire website, so that if you make a test purchase, but find the site has disappeared when you go back, you will still have the evidence,” she says.
Fighting crime in cyberspace may be fairly new for councils, but as residents fall victim to such crimes, they will come under increasing pressure to come up with local solutions
“There are also programmes where, say, you go to an online auction site and find fake Gucci goods and it will record every screen you go to, so you have that evidence to put to a court,” she adds.
Only a limited number of officers can be seconded to the police e-crime team, and those who are will be expected to share knowledge with colleagues.
Ms Ford says it is impossible to quantify electronic crime “but it is multi-million pound and growing”, and will only increase in line with use of the internet.
Fighting crime in cyberspace may be fairly new for councils, but as their residents increasingly fall victim to such crimes, they will come under increasing pressure to come up with local solutions.