And with a 63 per cent increase in cyber attacks and a 43 per cent jump in online fraud in Ireland this year, the criminals are now firmly in the sights of the Garda National Cyber Crime Bureau. In an exclusive interview with the Irish Sun, Det Chief Supt Paul Cleary, who runs the GNCCB and has 27 years’ policing experience, warned how cyber crime is “rapidly evolving”.
He said: “We are actively targeting and patrolling the dark web to identify the criminal groupings and individuals who use this for illegal purposes. “Drugs and illegal services can now be ordered at the push of a button and this will only grow.
“Organised crime gangs are exploiting the internet to communicate and control their empires. "We are satisfied that criminals and organised crime gangs are using the dark web to buy and sell drugs, guns and encrypted phones.
“Cyber crime is rapidly evolving but law enforcement is making significant strides in tackling the existence and growth of online crime. The bureau is committed to ensuring the online safety of the public, private individuals and industry.”
CHILD EXPLOITATION CASES
Another major crime investigated by the specialist unit is the area of child exploitation, which includes sickos viewing images of kids being abused.
At present, 360 suspected child exploitation cases are now being probed. Each case can take weeks to investigate as laptops, phones and other devices seized have to be forensically examined. Det Chief Supt Cleary said: “The exploitation of children and the proliferation of child abuse material is one of the most heinous crimes that our bureau investigates. It targets the most vulnerable in our society and there is a victim in every case.
“A significant part of our time and resources are willingly spent on identifying the perpetrators of these crimes and their victims. “We have had notable successes where members of the bureau are centrally involved in the investigation of child exploitation and the identification of their victims through the forensic examination of the computers and the media they used.
“Encryption is being used by offenders, including terrorists and sexual predators, to hide their crimes and identities. Law enforcement agencies have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable and the State. “The bureau uses recognised tools and techniques to ensure its examinations can locate and identify the best evidence to prove the guilt, or the innocence, of the suspects involved.
“Our detectives have to look at these images and videos and categorise them. We are aware there is a victim in each case. I also give priority to the welfare of my members. We have the proper welfare supports in place, I take that very seriously.”
HATE SPEECH PROBED
Although drugs gangs and sick perverts are major targets for the bureau, which works closely with specialist units under the command of Assistant Commissioner John O’Driscoll at Serious and Organised Crime, those engaged in promoting extreme views online are also on their radar.
Det Chief Supt Cleary added: “The bureau plays a central role in those investigations as many of the crimes that involve terrorism or hate speech are committed over online forums. “The painstaking and in-depth investigations of the contents of the computers, and the intent of the users, frequently provides evidential data that is central to the investigation and can result in a stronger case in court.”
At present, the bureau’s specialist investigators break down their probes into ‘Cyber Enabled’ and ‘Cyber Dependent’ crimes. Cyber Enabled crimes include areas of theft, fraud and child exploitation that are committed using computers, but also other electronic devices. Cyber Dependent incidents relate to using computers only and the crimes include hacking, ransomware, malware and denial of service attacks.
Det Chief Supt Cleary explained: “Offenders are using the same techniques to extract money and information from victims whether it’s via email, text or social media, but they still play on people’s fears.”
As the pandemic continues, the cyber crime team have also investigated 324 ‘phishing’ incidents and 178 ‘business email compromise’ cases between February and October of this year. Other figures show how there were 149 ‘investment frauds’ and 43 incidents of ‘unauthorised access’ to computer systems here.
And there has been a 37 per cent increase in romance frauds this year — while latest figures also show how cyber crime now costs the global economy a staggering €6 Trillion. Since Det Chief Supt Cleary’s appointment to the bureau in July, the senior officer has drawn up plans to increase the unit’s capability by appointing 50 new investigators along with 20 civilian members of staff.
Alongside the expansion plans, 220 frontline officers across the country have also been trained as ‘Digital First Responders’, and they provide the experience necessary to secure and preserve evidence from electronic devices at crime scenes and on searches. At present, the bureau has the latest state of the art equipment to tackle the growing number of gangs that are involved in various forms of cyber crime.
And six ‘cyber satellite hubs’ will also be established in Garda stations in Wexford, Mullingar, Galway and Cork by the end of 2020, with two more hubs to be introduced in Dublin and Cavan by next year. Det Chief Supt Cleary said: “It’s an area of law enforcement which has massive potential and I’m very excited to be part of enhancing the Garda cyber crime capabilities in the future.
“This major expansion of GNCCB is a strong indication of how seriously the Garda organisation takes this type of crime and the commitment to ensure we have a strong capability in this area into the future.
“Every Garda district in the country will have trained Digital First Responders to assist members of the public when reporting cyber crime. “This is all about providing the highest standards of service to people reporting cyber crime.
“The new recruits will join the different teams in cyber security, cyber investigations, cyber intelligence, computer forensics — and they will also be involved in cyber safety, contributing to education and awareness campaigns to keep people safe online.”
COMPUTER HACKER PLEA
As part of his remit, Det Chief Supt Cleary also has responsibility for the Garda National Technical Bureau and the Garda Operational Support Services, which includes the Air Support Unit and the Sub Aqua Unit. And the senior officer, who led the investigation that resulted in the conviction of Kinahan cartel killer Fat Freddie Thompson, has also urged anyone with information on computer hackers to come forward.
Det Chief Supt Cleary explained: “There are people out there with information on those involved in hacking and we want to hear from them. “This can be done on a confidential and anonymous basis.”
And as the battle against web crooks continues, plans are also under way to provide a special online platform for people to report cyber crimes. In their efforts to confront the threat of cyber crime, Det Chief Supt Cleary and his team work closely with Europol, Interpol, the FBI, the Banking Payments Federation of Ireland, Eurojust and also the National Cyber Security Centre.
The top cop urged people to remain vigilant to the various forms of cyber crime, adding: “As a result of the pandemic, people are spending more time on their devices. “This has increased the number of potential victims that offenders can exploit with scams.”
And he warned: “If anyone feels they have been the victim of a cyber crime they should come for- ward immediately.”