Will cyber-collars have any lasting effect?

CYBER-PRINTS: Whether you're a law and order hawk or a squishy liberal, there's no denying cyber-fraud aggravation.
CYBER-PRINTS: Whether you're a law and order hawk or a squishy liberal, there's no denying cyber-fraud aggravation.

Many Kiwis are likely to be celebrating reports that United States authorities have identified 17 Indian and US residents they believe to be responsible for the epidemic of fake "tech support" phone calls.

Those are ones where someone with a heavy Indian accent calls you at dinner-time, pretending to be from Microsoft, claiming there is something wrong with your computer.

An Information Week report said authorities in Australia, Canada and Britain and Microsoft had all assisted with the crackdown, which has so far seen a US judge seize the assets of 14 businesses.

Time to forget Kim Dotcom for a moment and salute the stars and stripes.

Though the fraud targeted English-speaking countries around the world and - one suspects - a disproportionate number of us trusting New Zealanders, there was no mention of any contribution from Godzone unfortunately.

The belated breakthrough came as 600 ministers, officials and experts from around the world, including New Zealand Communications Minister Amy Adams, gathered in Budapest for a Cyberspace conference - what looks to be shaping up as another talk shop on cybercrime.

Adams was in good company sandwiched between a video-appearance by US secretary of state Hilary Clinton and Japanese deputy foreign minister Ryuji Yamane.

But the inevitable reality of these massive international conferences is that unless officials have nutted out something meaningful in advance for governments to ratify - which on this occasion it appears they haven't - they wrap up with some wishy-washy declaration paving the way for the next such meeting.

So far, British foreign secretary William Hague has helpfully told the conference "it has never been easier to be a cybercriminal than it is today". More constructively, he announced Britain had set aside £2 million a year for a Centre for Global Cyber-Security Capacity Building that would help poorer countries improve the security and resilience of their cyberspace.

China has been stressing the importance of "national sovereignty" and the "double-edgedness" of free speech on the internet. According to The Hindu, Indian communications minister Sachin Pilot's message is that India will get its house in order and put in place a comprehensive cyber security strategy.

"India is taking a far more nuanced position on the issues of cyber security and enhanced cooperation than in the past. We wish to cooperate with international governments at one level through a formal enhanced cooperation process while simultaneously involving other crucial stakeholders in the discussion," he told the newspaper enigmatically before boarding his flight to Budapest.

No - from the conference programme it doesn't look like anyone from the Nigerian government was planning to step up to the podium in Budapest, which illustrates the limitations of such conferences in a nutshell.

Whether you are a hawk on law and order or a squishy liberal, there is no denying there are a couple of aggravating elements to cyber-fraud.

First is its sheer inefficiency; the inconvenience it causes relative to the fairly meagre gains netted by perpetrators makes many forms of cybercrime particularly antisocial.

Just about everyone in New Zealand appears to have received at least one phone call from the tech-support fraudsters but Consumer Affairs estimated they had swindled $10m last year - and that was a "very good" fraud. Phishing attacks clog up inboxes and internet providers' networks, necessitating filtering and crashing email services, but reported losses to such frauds were just $87,000 last year.

Lower Hutt law firm Buckett Law and Auckland public relations agency Baldwins have had their Twitter accounts hacked in the past few days. The accounts were used to send out baiting texts designed to trick others into visiting sites that compromised their own Twitter accounts. Presumably there is some money to be made to be somewhere down the line, but it probably pales into insignificance compared with the nuisance caused.

The second aggravating factor is that many of the large scale frauds appear to be run by organised criminal groups in third world countries. So it is hard to imagine the proceeds of such crimes are being put to pleasant uses. This isn't Robin Hood or The Great Train Robbery.

So what to do?

The easy option is to label frauds as "scams" and hope most of the problems can be mitigated by campaigns to raise public awareness and prevent people becoming victims.

Tracking down the people behind internet frauds such as the tech-support frauds is hard graft and by the time perpetrators are identified they will already have inflicted a lot of the inconvenience, but such enforcement activity may well act as a meaningful deterrent.

Bigger gains may be possible through processes and prevention - putting in place checks and balances in the financial system that make it harder to shift the proceeds of fraud quickly and anonymously around the world, or that make it more difficult for people to anonymously obtain the cheap international internet phone numbers used for the likes of the tech-support frauds.

Would a 24-hour delay on Western Union transfers out of New Zealand that gave banks time to discover and track frauds or a few more controls on Skype be a worthwhile price to pay perhaps? Hopefully, Amy Adams will have some ideas on her return from Budapest.