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Unsuspecting digital victims

Global IT security firm Symantec estimates the cost of cyber crime at $114 million annually. Threats occur every second; yet most users fail to take the necessary precautions.

According to a fresh survey by global IT security firm Symantec, cyber crime has taken three times as many victims in the past year as traditional crime. The company, which boasts the largest number of protected users worldwide and is the maker of Norton AntiVirus products, estimates an average 20 threats occur every second and 14 users fall victim to them. That is an astounding number of 1,209,600 threats per day: the nastiest neighborhood could never produce that.

Though not as frightening as a traditional assault, cyber crime definitely is damaging. The value of global cyber crime is $114 million annually, says Symantec. Considering financial and time losses, an overall $247 million in damages have been reported in the past 12 months.

The reason for the growing number of attacks lies in our increased dependence on the internet. We are logged in (or rather hooked on) the web all day long. The Google generation, those aged between 18 and 24, spend an average 31 hour/week online. Of those who spent more than 49 hours online, 72% experienced a cyber attack last year.

The change in the way we use the web is also to blame. The amount of information people collect is on the rise.  Last year, information on the web grew by 62% to 800,000 petabytes, Symantec says. “We are all hoarders,” said Candid Wueest, senior security engineer of Symantec Hungary at the press conference presenting the findings of the poll. “We gather but don’t delete information in case we may use it later.” Although the storage capacities of computers are almost infinite, IT developments have made it possible to store data online. As a result, more information is shared through cloud services, which increases vulnerability.  

With the shift from desktops and laptops to tablets and smart phones, online exposure is increasing. People own a variety of devices, the majority of which can be only be made good use of if connected to the net. Wueest estimates that, in the next two years, 70% of people will use them as their primary device.

All of the above factors ease the job of cyber criminals. On a global scale, last year alone 431 million people experienced cyber crime. Some 65% of online adults fell victim to an attack. The damages amount to $338 million.

Hungary has had its fair share of cyber crime as well. The country’s ranking in terms of online crime rate is deteriorating: from 14th it has slid six places back on the global list of countries with the number of PCs infected by robot viruses. Seventy percent of people have met with some form of online crime. There are an average of 100 victims per hour; 8% use no cyber protection at all. “They’d be better off doing so,” said László Gombás of the Hungarian representation of Symantec. HUF 25,000–30,000 damages have been reported by 70% of people who were hacked. “That is way higher than the cost of installing anti-spyware. It is not the lack of funds, but the lack responsibility that drives this negative trend.”

The company carries out an internet security survey every year with aim of identifying future trends as well. To develop products that are more up to date and address the new generation of online threats, it categorizes web pages based on their safety.

Unsurprisingly, pages with adult content and file sharing sites are most likely to be infected. However, every day a few hundred websites will get hacked by an attacker who changes the normal content to include a malicious piece of software. Normal news sites, television sites, government sites: the attacks are indiscriminate. “It is possible that a website you have visited for the last few months to check the weather report suddenly infects your machine,” Wueest warns. There is no pop-up, you won’t even notice it as the viruses stay dormant, waiting for a credit card number.

Symantec also studies user patterns. As a rule, men are the braver (or less risk averse) sex and the cyber world is no exception. They are willing to take the calculated risks of visiting pages with adult content. Women tend to spend their time online building and maintaining friendships, a seemingly innocent activity – but for a hacker just as lucrative.

From a developer’s viewpoint, the most challenging user is the reckless one. “He knows it is dangerous but doesn’t want to have a security feature. Even if he would have one, he would probably disable it to go there,” Wueest said. It is no easy job to address this group with products, yet there are some solutions. Safe browsing, a function that in the background checks what the user is doing in the browser on a technical level, but not on a “you can’t do this or that” sort of way. So if one goes to a malicious site, it will stop the malicious part and you can still read the news or whatever content you were looking for.

Depending how bad the experience was, users may change. Small inconveniences will not make a difference: it takes stolen credit card data and other painful losses for someone to become a regular client of anti-virus software makers.