Cayman’s Digital Forensic Hub has seen an increase in cyber-related crimes locally from sextortion to predators reaching out to children via popular social media platforms.
Stephen Reed, a cyber forensic operative at the hub, is urging the public and parents in particular, to be alert since they have noted a rise in children under the age of 18 sending indecent photos to each other.
“A lot of children are not being educated in this area enough really,” he said, explaining that “these images are shared between classmates, and they might not realise what they’re doing is actually illegal and then it may get onto the wrong person’s phone and then that is shared again throughout the school”, or in other places.
He said when the hub picks up on these cases they investigate to establish exactly where it originated from, “making sure there’s no children at risk”.
Recently released RCIPS 2020 crime statistics pointed to 40 cybercrimes investigated by the hub, 10 of which related to offences including possession and distribution of indecent images of a child, sextortion and social media impersonation/fraud.
Reed said protecting children is a massive part of what the hub does while working with partners like the Multi-Agency Child Safeguarding Hub, known as MASH.
WhatsApp key platform for grooming
Reed said at the hub they have noted that popular applications like TikTok, Discord and gaming platform Twitch are being utilised by predators to establish contact with children.
However, he said, in Cayman the WhatsApp messaging platform is used a lot to engage with children and even arrange contact.
“There are a few investigations that we’ve had so far this year that relate to underage females being targeted by older males via WhatsApp. I can’t obviously go into the details of that as there are a couple that are still under investigation… So that’s the area that we’re seeing is rising slightly,” he said.
Reed said it is unclear if the rise may be because these incidents are being reported more and the issue is more out in the open, or that parents are actually getting more information and recognising signs.
According to the crime statistics report, “cyber-enabled crime linked to sexual offences is often difficult to identify and, like sexual offences generally, is likely to be under reported. Of all cyber enabled crime 3% (7) linked to sexual offences or 8% of all sexual offences were cyber-enabled. All the recorded crimes relate to a child (under 16) and include both contact and non-contact offending.”
Contact offending relates to physical contact between offender and victim; non-contact can still involve abuse, the report stated.
Reed said that quite a lot of police inquiries relating to rapes and sexual assaults, as well as other offences, also have a digital aspect to them. The hub, he said, investigates cellphones and hard drives in pursuit of those cases.
“The devices that we will take will help assist the officers investigating those matters… So, we’ve seen a rise in that area as well,” he said.
The crime statistics, released last month, showed that over 350 digital forensic devices were examined by the hub, an increase of more than 150 devices compared to 2019.
Reed said another main increase they have noted is in cases of sextortion; while only two investigations of sextortion were recorded, he believes it is happening more often than the statistics show.
There are a “rising number” of sextortion cases, he said, but explained that “quite a few” don’t get reported, for example where a victim is contacted by an overseas actor who will invite the victim, usually through a chat feature, to share photos of themselves undressed.
“[T]hose images will then be used as a bargaining chip to try and extort money from that person and the usual factor that they’ll go for is ‘We’re going to share this with your friends and colleagues, unless you pay me this amount of money,’” he said.
Vigilance is important
Parents, Reed said, should take note of any changes in their children’s behaviour, especially when online or on their phones.
Predators using the platforms to reach children often start with compliments or enticing them with gifts.
“If your younger children or your teenage children are becoming more secretive around their phones, becoming more closed in… if their activity online can’t be explained, if they’re receiving gifts that have come out of nowhere. If you know that you’re not giving them pocket money or anything like that, and they’re coming out with a brand new pair of Nikes… ‘Where have you got that from?’ ‘A friend gave it to me,’ that is a big warning sign straight away,” he said.
Reed encouraged parents to report any concerns or even if their child thinks that they might be being groomed.
“We can investigate it and we can make sure that the perpetrators do come to justice. Even if it’s not on island, which quite a lot of them are not, we can pass it on to the authorities in the relevant jurisdictions,” he said.
As for sextortion, Reed said there is a simple way to protect against that.
“The easiest way of not becoming a victim of sextortion would be don’t share pictures of yourself online. It’s on the internet… [even] if they’ve said they deleted it or whatever, it will be there forever. You can’t get rid of it,” he said.