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Cyber / online crime

Cybercrimes take place online. There are two overarching areas of cybercrime:

  1. cyber-dependent crimes - which can only be committed through the use of online devices and where the devices are both the tool to commit the crime and the target of the crime, and 
  2. cyber-enabled crimes - traditional crimes which can be increased in scale by using computers.

These crimes take on a number of different formats - from hacking and use of the dark web to trolling on social media and phishing or identity thefts. The aims of such activities may be to commit sexual offences such as grooming or sharing indecent images, to control or disrupt computer systems, or steal money, information or data.

The dark web is used by criminals to trade illegal items online including drugs and firearms.


Hacking is the unauthorised use of or access into computers or networks by using security vulnerabilities or bypassing usual security steps to gain access. Criminals may hack systems or networks to steal money or information, or simply to disrupt businesses.  

Malicious software - or malware - can be spread between computers and interfere with the operations of computers. It can be destructive, causing system crashes or deleting files, or used to steal personal data. Viruses, worms, Trojans, spyware and ransomware are all types of malware. 

Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDOS) attacks are where more than one, and often thousands, of unique IP addresses are used to flood an internet server with so many requests that they are unable to respond quickly enough. This can cause a server to become overloaded and freeze or crash, making websites and web-based services unavailable. 

The dark web is made up of a number of untraceable online websites. Specific software and search engines must be used to access the websites. 

Social media offences

Trolling is a form of baiting online which involves sending abusive and hurtful comments across all social media platforms. This can be prosecuted under the Malicious Communication Act 1988 and the Communications Act 2003.

Online threats could take many forms including threats to kill, harm or to commit an offence against a person, group of people or organisation.

Disclosure of private sexual images without consent – so called “revenge porn” is a broad term covering a range of activity usually involving an ex-partner, uploading intimate sexual images of the victim to the internet, to cause the victim humiliation or embarrassment. It is a criminal offence to re-tweet or forward without consent, a private sexual photograph or film, if the purpose was to cause distress to the individual depicted. 

Online harassment can include repeated attempts to impose unwanted communications or contact in a manner that could be expected to cause distress or fear. 

Grooming refers to the actions of an individual who builds an emotional connection with a child to gain their trust for the purposes of sexual abuse or sexual exploitation.

Stalking online is a form of harassment which can involve persistent and frequent unwanted contact, or interference in someone’s life

Virtual mobbing takes place when a number of individuals use social media or messaging to make comments to or about another individual, usually because they are opposed to that person's opinions. The volume of messages may amount to a campaign of harassment.

Cyber-enabled fraud

Fraudsters use the internet to gain sensitive personal information through phishing attempts. Often criminals pretend to be a company and trick a victim into using a malicious website or installing malware on their device. A phishing attempt can be sent to a range of ‘targets’ at the same time.

This can lead to identity theft  - criminals gathering enough information about a victim to take their identity and commit fraud. Personal details can be used to obtain documents such as passports or driving licences, open bank accounts or credit card accounts, or take over existing bank accounts.

Criminals can also use the internet to carry out intellectual property fraud - creating counterfeit goods to sell online, either billed as genuine or clearly fake, or setting up and running websites purporting to be genuine retail outlets. Intellectual property fraud includes streaming content owned by someone else online, for example a new cinema release or live sports matches.

Read more information on fraud.

Further reading

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