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Why organised criminal gangs are actively grooming teenagers to become the next generation of cyber hackers

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next generation of cyber hackers

More than two years have passed since Europol warned in its 2017 Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment that traditional organised crime networks had belatedly gone digital. It was noted at the time that these groups were increasingly turning to Crime-as-a-Service (CaaS) offers, which were being sold on the dark web by people with the technical skills required to make this happen. Fast forward 24 months, and it would appear that gang bosses may be becoming tired of having to rely on the CaaS business model whenever they need access to individuals with hacking skills. Last week, senior British police officers warned that organised crime gangs are now actively recruiting their own hackers, and are targeting teenage gamers on the autistic spectrum as part of their efforts to do so. Quoting research that suggests more than 80% of cyber criminals have a background in gaming, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) launched a campaign intended to turn teenagers away from cyber crime, and encourage them to use their hacking skills for good. But noble as the initiative appears, it is unlikely to reverse a trend that is making teenage hackers the new elite of the organised criminal underworld.

It is not difficult to see why crime gangs are eager to secure the services of a new generation of young hackers. A slew of recent cases have demonstrated just how much money can be made from their skills, somewhat contacting a 2017 National Crime Agency (NCA) report that claimed young cyber criminals were more interested in the notoriety their activities garnered than any financial reward.

Earlier this month, 24-year-old Zain Qaiser was handed a six-year sentence by a British court after being found guilty of using malware to blackmail visitors to pornography websites. Between 2012 and 2014, the former computer science student is thought to have helped an organised criminal gang from Russia make millions of pounds by infecting adverts on legal adult websites with ransomware that demanded payments of up to $1,000 from victims. Prosecutors said Qaiser was personally paid more than £700,000 ($910,370) for his part in the scam, which he is said to have spent on prostitutes, luxury hotels, gambling and a Rolex watch. The NCA, which is often referred to as the UK’s equivalent of the FBI, described it as the most serious case of cyber crime it has investigated to date.

Just days later, an unemployed university drop-out from the city of Liverpool in the UK was sentenced to more than five years behind bars after being convicted of running the Silk Road 2.0 dark web illicit marketplace. Thomas White, 24, had helped run the original Silk Road until it was closed down by FBI investigators in 2013. Just one month after it was taken offline, White launched Silk Road 2.0, which like its predecessor was used by vendors to offer illicit items including drugs, weapons, cyber crime tools and stolen credit card details. While it is unknown how much money White personally made from creating the site, investigators estimated that it was used to sell illegal items worth $96 million, on which the former accounting student would take a commission of up 5%. White should consider himself lucky he is not in the position of Ross Ulbricht, the creator of the original Silk Road website, who was jailed for life with no chance of parole in 2015.

At the beginning of this year, police in Germany arrested a 19-year-old man in connection with a hacking incident that resulted in the personal details of politicians and celebrities being published on Twitter. In what was described as the largest such leak in the country’s history, documents including letters sent and received by German Chancellor Angela Merkel were dumped online in December of last year. The teenager, identified only as Jan S in line with Germany’s privacy laws, said that while he had been in contact with the hacker who leaked the documents, he played no part in obtaining them. Last August, a 16-year-old boy from Australia who said he dreamed of working for Apple pleaded guilty to hacking into the iPhone maker’s network and downloading 90 gigabytes of internal files. He was later spared jail when he was sentenced last September at the Australian Children’s Court, despite the offences of which he had been accused carrying a jail term of up to three years.

Prior to the invention of the internet, those who found themselves operating in the world of serious and organised crime did so largely as a consequence of their environment and the people around them. Now, hackers with the requisite skillset can carry out cyber crime activities involving huge amounts of money from their parents’ basement, without ever having to personally interact with their associates. While British police efforts to dissuade young people vulnerable to being groomed into becoming the next generation of cyber criminals are laudable, it is likely that many will find the money and notoriety on offer to major hackers more attractive than the prospect of working for the other side.

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Opinion

If the UK press is so racist, why do Prince Andrew’s alleged wrongdoings generate so many more column inches than ‘Asian’ grooming gangs?

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‘Asian’ grooming gangs

Much has been made over recent weeks of the way Meghan Markle has been treated by the British press since she married Prince Harry some 20 months ago. She has, we are told by her supporters, been made to endure the most appalling abuse, particularly at the hands of the UK print media. It has been repeatedly suggested that this has been meted out solely on account of Markle’s skin colour, and has absolutely nothing to do with the manner in which she has conducted herself since joining the royal family. The difference between the coverage she receives and that enjoyed by Prince William’s wife Kate Middleton, it is argued, simply comes down to skin colour.

Accusations of racism are routinely levelled at parts of the British media, and are in some cases well deserved. But whether or not you believe Meghan Markle has been hounded by reporters and journalists due to the fact she is of mixed race, there is little evidence to suggest that Prince Andrew has in any way benefitted from the colour of his skin when it comes to media coverage of his alleged wrongdoings. That is of course entirely correct.

Accusations that the Duke of York may have been involved in sex trafficking should be taken extremely seriously. As should the very well documented fact that he maintained a relationship with the disgraced and now deceased US financier Jeffrey Epstein after he had been convicted of procuring an underage girl for prostitution and sex trafficking.

Thanks to UK media coverage of his alleged behaviour, Prince Andrew’s life is now almost unrecognisable compared to this time last year. Following weeks of lurid headlines about his party lifestyle and discussion relating to his ability to sweat, the Duke was effectively sacked from the royal family, and lost almost all his “work”. The press did its job; exposing wrongdoing and holding Andrew to account. Having white skin did him few favours on this occasion it would seem, and failed to protect him from an absolute mauling from the British media.

But if the UK press truly is as racist as is often claimed, one could surely expect that it would stop at nothing to investigate repeated revelations about mostly Pakistani Muslim paedophile grooming gangs raping poor white working-class girls with at least the same vigour as it would allegations about the Duke of York? Apparently not.

Last week, the Times of London reported that it had seen a report that showed the UK’s Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) had upheld a complaint that a police officer from Rotherham ignored allegations that such gangs existed because the town “would erupt” if it were  known that Asian men were routinely having sex with under-age white girls. While the story received moderate levels of media coverage for a couple of days, it garnered nothing approaching the attention generated by the allegations relating to Prince Andrew.

There is a pattern here. In the UK, barely a month goes by without reports of “Asian” gangs being brought before the country’s courts to face charges of raping vulnerable young white girls. Earlier this month, the BBC reported that Leeds Crown Court had heard that a grooming gang in Huddersfield preyed on two “young and vulnerable” teenage girls, with one victim estimating she “had sex with up to 300 men”.

In December, the Independent reported that campaigners had called for the UK government to keep a promise to review grooming gang “characteristics” after revealing that more than 18,700 suspected victims of child sexual exploitation were identified by local authorities in 2018-19. In November, the Yorkshire Post reported that five men who sexually exploited young girls in Huddersfield had been handed jail sentences of up to 14 years. To say this is an epidemic would be an extraordinary understatement. In fact, research published by the Quilliam Foundation in 2017 revealed that 84% of “grooming gang” offenders were at the time “South Asian”.

Despite this, the above stories and many others like them receive nothing approaching the blanket coverage the disgraceful allegations against Prince Andrew were rightly given towards the back end of last year. Surely, if the UK media was as racist as some people claim, reports of mostly Pakistani Muslim paedophile gangs raping young white working-class girls would receive at least comparable coverage to the accusations facing the Duke of York? Fortunately for the members of these gangs, it would appear that the British press is beset by a form of racism to which they are immune.

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Opinion

The GirlsDoPorn compensation award highlights a sickness at the heart of the adult film industry

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GirlsDoPorn compensation award

Last week, a court in the US state of San Diego awarded nearly $13 million to a group of 22 women who claimed they were tricked into performing in pornographic films after replying to online advertisements for modelling work. The owners of adult website GirlsDoPorn were ordered pay $12.8 million after a judge said they had used deception and false promises to entrap the women. At the end of a three-month civil trial, the judge ruled that James Pratt, Matthew Isaac Wolfe and porn actor Ruben Garcia had falsely told their victims that the adult films in which they appeared would not be posted online, and would only be used to create DVDs for overseas customers. Pratt, Wolfe and Garcia, the former of whom is currently on the run in his native New Zealand, all currently face criminal charges for their roles in the conspiracy.

The case appears to at least partially confirm what anti-porn activists have argued for decades; that the adult film industry is inextricably linked to human trafficking and the coercion of “performers” to participate in sex acts in front of the camera against their will or under false pretences. Campaigners such as these are often dismissed as being puritan fanatics with an irrational and illiberal dislike of the adult film industry, but a growing body of evidence suggests that many performers in pornographic movies may well have been exploited in one way or another. While most adult film consumers would never dream of viewing child sexual exploitation content, few porn enthusiasts likely trouble themselves with questions over whether or not the performers in the movies they watch may be victims of other forms of exploitation.

While rulings such as the one handed down in the GirlsDoPorn case are few and far between, the compensation awarded to the women involved demonstrates that the US legal system may be beginning to acknowledge the suffering of victims who are tricked into appearing in pornographic films. Although this might not be sex trafficking in the traditional sense of the term, the consequences for those involved was devastating. Some of the young women targeted by Pratt, Wolfe and Garcia described how they were ostracised from their families and ridiculed by their friends after footage of them preforming sex acts were uploaded to GirlsDoPorn and other adult websites. Some of the plaintiffs explained how they were left contemplating taking their own lives after they were recognised performing in adult videos online.

Although an egregious example of such behaviour, the modus operandi of the owners of GirlsDoPorn was by no means an aberration within the adult film industry. For many years now, young women have described replying to job adverts for modelling work only to find themselves being asked to perform sex acts in front of a camera. In such scenarios, victims are often pressured into doing so after they have been invited to attend a supposed photoshoot or audition, oftentimes being told that agreeing to do what is being asked of them will help them progress in their chosen career.

Many adult sites even have niche categories in which viewers can access videos that claim to depict young women being coerced into performing sex acts having turned up to an audition for modelling work, the implication being that such films have been posted online without the victim’s knowledge. While some of these videos will most likely have been contrived to appeal to viewers who want to see this type of thing, there can be little doubt that some genuinely feature vulnerable victims who have been duped into appearing on camera.

The GirlsDoPorn case is remarkable not only because it is so rare for the owners of adult websites in the US to face any form of legal action, but more importantly because the charges relate to practices that anecdotal evidence suggests are so widespread in the porn industry. Up until now, the received wisdom seemed to be that so long as adult film performers were above the age of consent and were not overtly being “forced” to perform sex acts on camera, the makers of such content could act with near impunity.

Whether or not Pratt, Wolfe and Garcia are found guilty of the criminal charges they face, which include sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion, the compensation ruling handed down against them could bring about a significant sea change in the way the porn industry operates and is regulated. While it may well have been true that the plaintiffs in the case might not have been explicitly forced to carry out any sexual acts against their will, the compensation they were awarded is testament to the suffering they were put through as a result of what happened to them. On reflection, the only strange thing about this case is that it took so long for anybody to realise that treating victims in this way was so wrong.

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Opinion

Are classified sites such as Craigslist facilitating prostitution by allowing ‘sex-for-rent’ ads?

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are classified sites such as Craigslist facilitating prostitution

In many major UK cities, young people can find themselves paying more to rent a room than some families spend on their monthly mortgage repayments. Renters in London routinely find themselves having to shell out upwards of £600 ($802) a month for a single room, with many handing landlords much more than this if they live in a more expensive part of town. For those on the UK’s national minimum wage or students, let alone the unemployed or homeless, this can be prohibitively expensive. In the absence of wealthy parents who are willing to foot the bill for suitable accommodation, a high number of young people looking to live in big British cities often find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, unable to afford the cost of living  in the location in which they would like to live.

Sadly, the unaffordability of this type of accommodation is being exploited by unscrupulous landlords who offer tenants free board in exchange for sex. Despite several exposés by UK media outlets highlighting the growing sex-for-rent trade, classified listings sites such as Craigslist remain full of entries in which dodgy landlords offer vulnerable young people the chance to live in a property for free in return for sex.

In a high number of cases, the landlords are middle-aged men who often signal a preference for young women in their online ads. What is perhaps most alarming is the fact that these ads continue to be placed even though experts have warned that the landlords who post them might be guilty of a number of criminal offences should they go through with accepting sex acts in exchange for the accommodation they provide.

Last year, a survey conducted by YouGov found 250,000 women in the UK had been offered free or discounted accommodation in exchange for sex. The phenomenon has become so widespread in recent years that the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has been forced to update its legal guidance on prostitution.

Notes published by the CPS in January on sex-for-rent arrangements state that anybody exchanging accommodation for sex could be committing the offence of causing prostitution for gain or inciting prostitution for gain. In spite of this, and a number of relatively high-profile investigations into several sex-for-rent cases across the UK, there appears to be no shortage of shady landlords in Britain who have few qualms about offering accommodation to vulnerable young people in exchange for sexual favours.

Last year, reporters from the BBC confronted a sex-for-rent landlord on camera after secretly filming him propositioning a potential tenant. Earlier this month, LBC conducted a similar investigation, challenging a sleazy landlord who suggested to a young female actress that she might like to enter into a “daddy/daughter type scenario” should she move into his property. When confronted, both men were understandably embarrassed, but proclaimed they were unaware they were doing anything wrong.

Back in 2016, homeless charity Shelter published some examples of the types of sex-for-rent ads that were being posted on Craigslist at the time. One read: “If any young female student is in need of free of charge accommodation & is prepared to act as a ‘resource’ in return, then please provide full personal details & a recent pic & reply from your own private e-mail address please. No pic, no reply (sic).”

Nearly four years on, little appears to have changed. Within seconds of logging on to the shared rooms section of the Craigslist website, we were able to identify numerous posts that appeared to allude to similar arrangements. One poster who described himself as a 25-year-old single “romantic man” was offering a “roomshare” in London for an “eastern European girl”. Elsewhere, accommodation was on offer in London for a female of any age who would be willing to pay her rent with “massages”. Another advertiser was offering a room for free to a “submissive female”.

While the CPS told LBC that UK law has been left untested on sex-for-rent because not one case has been presented by police for prosecution, it must surely be true that Craigslist and other classified listing sites that publish adverts offering accommodation in exchange for sexual favours would be facilitating any offence the poster went on to commit. In March of last year, Craigslist removed personal listings from its website after the US government introduced new legalisation making online publishers responsible for the promotion of prostitution and sex trafficking. If classified listing sites such as Craigslist want to avoid accusations of facilitating prostitution, they would do well to better vet the ads they allow on their accommodation share pages.

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