Causes of Cyber Crime

By Edward Mercer

Cyber criminals can reach an Internet-connected computer from anywhere in the world.
i Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images

According to the credit-checking firm Experian, online identity theft increased 300 percent between 2010 and 2012 -- just one of the areas of online crime that has grown in recent years. Cyber crime -- including everything from identify theft and hacking to virus distribution and computer fraud -- is a complex area of criminology and one that is receiving more attention as computers are prevalent in our lives and handle more of our personal information. Like other areas of crime, its causes are sometimes difficult to establish, but certain trends in cyber crime are emerging.

Economically Motivated Cyber Crime

As is the case with many crimes committed outside the Internet, money is a major motivator for many cyber criminals. Especially because the dangers of criminality are less apparent when you're hiding behind a network, the perception of low risk and very high financial reward prompts many cyber criminals to engage in malware, phishing, identity theft and fraudulent money request attacks. Businessweek estimates that cyber crimes targeting online banking accounts alone, for example, pull in nearly 700 million dollars per year globally.

Personally Motivated Cyber Crime

Cyber criminals are still human beings and what they do -- including their crimes -- is often the cause of personal emotions and vendettas. From the disgruntled employee installing a virus on office computers to a jealous boyfriend hacking into a girlfriend's social media accounts or a teenager taking down a school website just to prove that he could do it, many cyber crimes are essentially crimes of passion committed over the Internet. Many of these crimes, however, can still have very serious impacts and cause considerable property damage.

Ideologically Motivated Cyber Crime

After financial companies like Visa, MasterCard and PayPal refused to let account and card holders make contributions to the controversial non-profit WikiLeaks, the "hacktivist" group Anonymous coordinated a series of bot attacks on the companies' servers, rendering them unreachable to Internet users. These kinds of attacks are conducted for perceived ethical, ideological or moral reasons, damaging or disabling computer equipment and networks to express grievances against individuals, corporations, organizations or even national governments.

Structural Causes

Beyond the causes that motivate criminals, the environment in which cyber crime is committed also serves to explain the prevalence of the phenomenon. While more and more personal and sensitive information is stored online -- increasing the potential rewards for cyber criminals -- neither computer security nor applications like email filters have improved dramatically in terms of coverage. According to the anti-virus manufacturer Norton, for example, as many as 41 percent of computers did not have up-to-date security protection in 2012.