One of the best ways to avoid financial scams is to always ask why certain information is requested, says Inspector Timothy Zammit, head of the Cyber Crime Unit.

A number of factors – including island status, small geographical size and population, a strong fa­mily structure and religion – contribute to Malta enjoying relative safety from traditional crime.

Inspector Timothy Zammit. Photo: Chris Sant FournierInspector Timothy Zammit. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Yet cyber crime does not recognise social or geographical structure. As long as Malta is connected – and it is, by far, one of the most connected in Europe, with the latest statistics showing that 80.1 per cent of the total population are regular internet users, and 87 per cent of these are on social media – then cyber crime will follow the same trends as in other, larger countries.

With the increased reliance on technology, cyber crime is on the rise.

“Back in 2003, we used to handle 50 cases every year,” says Inspector Timothy Zammit, who heads the Cyber Crime Unit. “Last year, we handled 870 cases, which translates into an average of two to three new cases every day.”

There are two main categories of cyber crime. The first is the traditional form of crime – such as fraud – which adopted technology as a means to the same end. The second type is ‘pure’ cyber crime – such as hacking – which does not have a ‘traditional’ counterpart.

Types of cyber crime vary.

“The top forms of cyber crime are computer misuse, fraud and online threats,” Inspector Zammit says. “There is a degree of underreporting in the first two forms. It is difficult to calculate the degree of under-reporting. However, in criminology, the dark figure – that is, crime that is not reported – is conservatively estimated to be of the same level as that which is reported.”

Under-reporting can be tied to a lack of education and information about what constitutes cyber crime.

“The Cyber Crime Unit engages a lot with society. At least twice a week, we visit schools and football nurseries to inform children – who are the adults and workforce of tomorrow – on cyber crime, how to recognise it and what help they should seek.

“We also educate them how traditional crime has taken on new forms through technology. In the past, for instance, traditional bullying could not penetrate the safety of home.

“Nowadays, however, through the internet, bullying can target individuals in their own home.

“We also provide training to officers through the Academy of Disciplined Forces. General training – such as awareness of different types of cyber crime and handling digital evidence – is delivered to all police officers on a continuous basis. Then we offer other specialised training.”

Once an individual gives criminals access, then the whole organisation is at risk

The Cyber Crime Unit has 11 team members and is growing, both in terms of human re­sources and in the tools it uses to combat cyber crime.

“As Cyber Crime Unit, we do not investigate or prosecute – rather, we provide assistance to other investigative teams. For example, we help them in tracing perpetrators or to help preserve a crime scene. We are a one-stop-shop for IT for other investigative teams. We also liaise with other teams such as the Economic Crimes Unit, with national counterparts, with Europol and with service providers such as Google and Facebook.”

In the financial sector, fraud is the more common type of cyber crime, followed by malware, ransomware and compromised accounts.

“There are also CEO scams, which are part of a recent trend in cyber crime,” Inspector Zammit says. “In such scams, a company’s accountant, for instance, receives instructions from the company’s CEO to effect an urgent payment. Subsequently, the company would discover that the instructions would not have come from the CEO but from someone else or from a compromised e-mail account. Locally, we’ve had losses of upwards of a quarter of a million euros.”

For Inspector Zammit, one of the most effective tools to avoid such scams is to always ask why certain information is being requested.

“Always think twice before opening an attachment. Once an individual gives criminals access, then the whole organisation is at risk. Also, make a habit of asking why requests for information are being made. Moreover, it is critical for organisations to have policies in place, including policies for bring-your-own-device, re­mote access, anti-virus installation and regular backups.”

Will blockchain and crypto­currencies increase the incidence of cyber crime?

“These are just other forms of technology. However, the situation is similar to when iGaming gained ground in Malta.

“With iGaming – and now with blockchain – the investment in Malta is significant and it is our duty to protect it.”

The Cyber Crime Unit will be present at the MIA Biennial Conference.


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