Management of Internet Fraud by Law Enforcement Agencies

Article excerpt

Burns, R. G., Whitworth, K. H., & Thompson, C. Y. (2004). Assessing law enforcement preparedness to address Internet fraud. Journal of Criminal Justice, 32, 477-493.

With a growing number of people engaging in e-commerce and managing their finances online, it may be argued that there is an increased need for researchers and law enforcement personnel to focus their attention on computer crimes and, in particular, internet fraud. The term 'internet fraud' includes crimes such as identity theft, theft of debit or credit card information, and defaulting on payment for goods or failure to provide goods paid for through online retail sites (e.g., Amazon) or auction sites (e.g., eBay). However, many law enforcement agencies have expressed a lack of preparedness to deal with such electronic crimes, often due to issues revolving around funding, training, and/or equipment.

In order to examine empirically the level of law enforcement preparedness for internet fraud investigation, Burns, Whitworth, and Thompson (2004) distributed surveys to the 700 largest U.S. police departments and sheriff's offices, all of which maintained a staff of at least one hundred officers. The survey assessed perceived preparedness to address internet fraud, perceptions of the types and extent of internet fraud that occur, co-operative policing efforts with other agencies, and dissemination of information. Surveys were addressed to the Police Chief or Agency Director, with instructions for the recipient to complete the survey personally or to forward it to the most appropriate person in the department. A response rate of 31 percent was obtained.

After analyzing their data, the authors reported the following results:

Preparedness

Nearly half of the respondents (46.7%) indicated that their law enforcement agency did not have an electronic or computer crime division, while a similar number of respondents (46.3%) indicated having such a division for five years or less. Of the respondents who indicated that their agency employs an electronic or computer crime division, 93.3 percent indicated that this division was comprised of five people or less. Most respondents indicated that they were unprepared or under-prepared to deal with internet fraud, with few believing that their agency or department had the necessary resources (15.3%) or equipment (16.2%) to adequately investigate internet fraud; nor did they believe that they had adequate staffing (6.5%) or training (17.6%) to do so. The most common types of internet fraud complaints received by the agencies were identity theft (81.8%), credit/debit card fraud (79.0%), and fraudulent practices involving general merchandise sales (65.9%) and online auctions (39.5%).

Perceptions and Attitudes

Most respondents viewed internet fraud as a significant problem (76.5%), but were less likely to believe that their agencies in particular (40.7%), or law enforcement agencies in general (41.0%), treat it as such. Respondents were even less likely to regard prosecutors (20.6%), judges (11.7%), or society (27.8%) as recognizing the severity of internet fraud. The majority of respondents supported the idea of creating more laws to effectively punish offenders who commit internet fraud (74.5%), as well as the facilitation of interstate (77.0%) or international (72.9%) efforts to enforce legislation regarding internet fraud. Most respondents also felt that law enforcement efforts in the area of internet fraud would be facilitated by clearer definitions of what constitutes internet fraud (64.5%) and clear delineation of law enforcement boundaries in terms of internet fraud investigation (70.0%).

There was less agreement, however, as to whose responsibility it should be to investigate and enforce laws pertaining to internet fraud, and whom respondents felt was taking an active role. The general consensus was that internet fraud should be handled at the federal level (93. …