Nova Scotia

Why shame prevents people from reporting cybercrime

Both police and a cybersecurity instructor believe that cases of cybercrime are woefully under-reported, making it hard for authorities to know exactly what's going on online. 'There is a war taking place and we're losing,' says one cybersecurity expert.

'There is a war taking place and we're losing,' says cybersecurity instructor Ron McLeod

Embarrassment is one of the major reasons people don't report cybercrime to police. (Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images)

Embarrassment has become an obstacle in the Halifax Regional Police force's efforts to understand how much cybercrime occurs in the municipality. 

People are frequently so ashamed of getting duped online that they don't come forward and report the crime to police, said Staff Sgt. Kevin Smith.

That means cybercrime is woefully under-reported, making it difficult for police to know what is happening online and to identify culprits.

"The prevalence of it is hard to nail down because it … has to be so much more than what's reported to the police," said Smith, who manages the regional police's investigative support office. That office includes the cyber-operations unit.

But police need people to come forward to get a better understanding of the situation in order to conduct an investigation. 

"We'd all like to think that we wouldn't fall for this or that," said Smith. "In reality, all it takes is a little lapse in concentration and, really, an opportunity that we see that's too good to pass up. And the next thing you know we've gone down the rabbit hole."

Many people fall down that rabbit hole, according Ron McLeod. He is an instructor in the cybersecurity program at the Nova Scotia Community College.

McLeod has spent 30 years working in the cybersecurity industry. 

There are two officers who handle cybercrime full time with the Halifax Regional Police. (Robert Short/CBC)

He said cybercrime is everywhere and everyone is vulnerable. Fraud, sextortion, identity theft, stolen credit card numbers — people and businesses fall victim everyday, but few people talk about it.

"Industry is trying to stay as quiet as they can about it," McLeod said. "You know, they're worried about reputational damage, and market damage, all that sort of stuff.

"When it happens to individuals there's a whole other component that causes people to keep silent about it. Most of it is related to things like shame and embarrassment."

There were 304 cyber-related crimes report to Halifax police in 2017. The number was down from 349 the year before.

There were 140 fraud complaints in each year, making it the cybercrime reported most often.

Smith said online fraud comes in a number of forms.

Criminals have started online relationships with people and scammed them out of money.

Others have posted pictures of beautiful apartments for rent at a good price. But as soon as someone puts down a security deposit, the apartment and their money are gone. 

Ron McLeod says that everyone is vulnerable to cyberattacks and it's exceedingly difficult to keep people out of computer systems. (Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images)

Fraudsters have also stolen banking information and other personal information. 

It's not clear how much money that's costing Haligonians, but the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre said Canadians lost $53 million last year to email, internet and social networking fraud alone.

"There is a war taking place and we're losing," said McLeod, "And we need to think individually about what we can do to contribute to the war effort." 

That war has already caused its own share of casualties, both financial and emotional. 

"I've personal experience with victims who have been traumatized to the point of not being able to work, you know, having to spend years in psychological counselling as a result of this," said McLeod. 

People can help protect themselves by limiting the personal information they put online, never clicking on links included in an email, and by taking time to learn about the dangers online and informing others, he said. 

Smith cautions people to avoid any deals online that look too good to be true.

"You're not going to have a bonfire in your living room because you think it's a cool idea and the fire department will come and save me if things go badly," said McLeod,

"That's the equivalent of what we're doing online. We are building bonfires inside our homes and hoping somebody will come and save us when things go wrong."   

The internet makes it easy for people from outside the country to commit crimes, but tracking those people across international borders takes time and is complex, said Smith. 

Two full-time officers

Halifax police have two full-time officers dedicated to fighting cybercrime and aiding other officers with any investigations that have a cybercrime element. Front-line officers have also been given training to better handle cybercrime complaints. 

But McLeod said all police forces, companies and governments in Canada are struggling to respond to the increases in cybercrime and haven't invested enough money to combat it.

Smith said the best defence is education.

"The most important thing here is to make attempts to prevent cybercrime and educate the public, " he said. 



David Burke


David Burke is a reporter in Halifax who covers everything from politics to science. His reports have been featured on The National, World Report and As it Happens, as well as the Information Morning shows in Halifax and Cape Breton.