- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 14, 2008

State authorities are not doing enough to protect consumers from online fraud and other cybercrimes, despite skyrocketing numbers of complaints from the public, according to a new survey.

While identity theft and online rip-offs are getting some attention from state attorneys general, the purveyors of spyware, adware, spam and phishing e-mails are rarely prosecuted, said the survey, conducted by the Center for Democracy and Technology, an Internet advocacy group, and the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.

The authors asked all 50 states to provide information on consumer complaints. Of the 36 states that responded, 24 ranked cybercrime of one kind or another among the top 10 topics of complaints last year. Eight states said it was among the top three.

The Federal Trade Commission - which compiles data for all 50 states from a variety of sources including law enforcement agencies and consumer complaint groups like the Better Business Bureau - reported 221,226 Internet-related fraud complaints last year, up almost 16,000 from 2006 and more than 24,000 from 2005.


Lack of comprehensive data from the state level is indicative of the low priority most give the problem, and even the FTC numbers may understate the problem, said Brock Meeks, a spokesman for the Center for Democracy and Technology.

“One of the things we had a problem with was working out who to call,” he said. “There is no uniformity” in how data about cybercrime is collected or by whom. There could be better numbers if there was better reporting.”

Mr. Meeks also said that states were not making the issue a priority. “The states are not adequately tracking or prosecuting these crimes,” he said.

The survey said that, of the cybercrime cases brought by state authorities in 2006 and 2007 reported by the National Association of Attorneys General, more than 60 percent related to the sexual enticement of minors or child pornography.

Fifteen and a half percent involved online rip-offs such as failure to deliver purchased goods or failure to provide a product or service that meets advertised quality. But the survey noted that these are conventional frauds that have been perpetrated by con artists for generations.

“The Internet is merely the medium for the transaction,” the survey said.

For cybercrimes unique to the Internet, such as the propagation of spyware and adware, or spam and phishing e-mails, only 14 cases were brought in the past two years - less than 10 percent of all cybercrimes.

Of these, 10 cases were brought by just two states, Washington and New York.

The survey’s authors said that, unless more was done to tackle the problem, the economic gains made by electronic commerce could be at risk.

“Internet crime costs basically nothing to execute, can be highly lucrative and involves little risk of being caught and punished,” said Ari Schwartz, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. “We need all 50 state attorneys general focused on this problem.”

A spokeswoman for the National Association of Attorneys General said she had not seen the report and could not comment.