Frequently, the media characterizes computer crimes as those involving hacking (gaining unauthorized computer network access), cracking (another word for gaining unauthorized access to a computer or program), or web page defacing (gaining unauthorized access to a web page and changing its content).
However, there is another more insidious type of computer crime, that of online sexual deviance. Deviant activities often reflect the individual's perverse behavior through email, news group messages, and chat room conversations.
Movies and television shows often portray cyber-deviants as easily identified. This simply isn't the case. Cyber-stalkers and child pornographers don't appear as they are popularly depicted. Rather, they come from every background and profession.
Two of the most common computer crimes targeting individual users are cyber-stalking and cyber-harassment. In a September 17, 1999 White House press briefing, Vice President Al Gore advised, "one in 12 women will be victims of some form of stalking during their lives, as will one in 45 men...increasing numbers of them will be victims of cyber-stalking."
Stalkers, harassers, and pedophiles are constantly looking for identifying characteristics of persons entering chat rooms or news groups that may fit their target profile. They look for signs of gender, age, geographic location and sexual preference. Often these items are obtained through monikers (user nicknames), chat room topics (although this may not necessarily be the case), and language used by the person in their message content. Since most small business and homes don't employ sophisticated network screening methods it becomes important for computer users to be carefully supervised, particularly in the case of younger children and teenagers.
To experience the effect of cyber-stalking or cyber-harassment, consider entering a chat room and use a female-sounding name such as "Slic-chik 24". Chat room members will assume such a person is female and is 24 years old. Your name will join the names of others in the chat room. It's not important for the chat room topic to deal with something sexual; consider a chat room topic dealing with sports cars. In usually a few minutes, messages will be posted to the chat room, and directly to Slic-chik 24, that are sexual in nature.
Most boors will leave Slic-chik 24 alone if told, however, there are others who are more persistent, more harassing. Through easily obtainable scripts, the stalking perpetrator will discover Slic-chik 24 each time she enters a chat room. It is also possible for a stalker or harasser to electronically interrupt Slic-chik 24's chat or otherwise target her chat program, making it virtually impossible to carry on a conversation with anyone else while using the name Slic-chik 24.
Abusers are present on the Internet, and there isn't a viable method to determine who they are or how many there are. Regrettably, there are people on the Internet who will use and abuse it for their deviant purposes. These individuals frequently have legitimate jobs, families, attend church and may even reside in our neighborhoods. Experience shows the most targeted groups are young women and children; however, deviants can victimize anyone.
These are a few of the steps that can be taken to avoid being a victim of cyber-deviants:
Carefully select email address names, chat room monikers, or screen names that don't reveal any identifiable information as gender, age, geographic locale or any other personal information. Such a name may be "mdpr90". This is a meaningless moniker and one that is gender and age neutral.
Be careful which chat rooms are frequented. If someone wants to make inappropriate remarks either through the chat room or through a personal message, don't provide a response. A wise idea would be to leave the chat room and immediately change your online name. Under no circumstances should a child or inexperienced Internet user disclose their true name, or email address, to anyone in a chat room or to a bulletin board. Additionally, under no circumstance should a child or teenager make personal contact with someone they've met on the Internet.
Consider using search engines to search for your own name and/or your screen name on the Internet. This will tell you what information is available to the searching entity.
If someone is a victim of a cyber-criminal, the most important items may be lost if the system is turned off. They should be saved in the form of screen-prints or text to some type of media as possible evidence. Threats or other comments should be taken seriously. Document the facts and circumstances surrounding their receipt.
If you or someone you know suspects they are being victimized by someone on the Internet, contact your local, state, provincial or national police agency. Most countries have laws addressing deviant behavior, whether on the Internet or not, resulting in criminal prosecution.
Establish an email account with one of the online services like Yahoo or Hotmail, so your home or office email isn't exposed to unwanted traffic.
No one wants to see the dark side of people, Internet citizens or not; or admit that bad things happen to good people. But regarding chat rooms, news groups, and other Internet messaging services, "an ounce of prevention can be better than a pound of cure." Using common sense in dealing with conversations on the Internet, the disclosure of personal information, and email address, can avoid triggering incidents involving cyber-deviants.
Alan B. Sterneckert, CISSP, CISA, CFE, CCCI, is a retired special agent, Federal Bureau of Investigation. He is an information security consultant, lecturer and author. He may be contacted at [email protected].