Hoaxes, scams and frauds among biggest complaints from UK internet users, Microsoft research reveals

Hoaxes, scams and frauds are some of the biggest problems UK internet users face, new research from Microsoft has found.

The company’s Digital Civility Index, which looks at negative behaviour on the internet and its consequences, revealed that 22% of people who responded to the survey had been the target of such illegal activity online.

It forms part of the “intrusive” area of Microsoft’s study, which also includes unwanted contact, hate speech and discrimination. The number of people admitting they had experienced such problems online rose seven percentage points to 41% between June 2016 and June 2017 compared with the previous 12 months.

The study comes just a week after a man from Leicestershire was given a suspended prison sentence for pretending to be a Microsoft employee to gain access to people’s computers and hold them to ransom. The conviction of Narendra Vadgama, from Barrow upon Soar, followed the arrest of four people in the UK last year as part of a move to crack down on fraudsters. Both operations were a result of regular, ongoing collaboration between Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit and authorities such as the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau at City of London Police.

police, car, tape

A man from the UK was given a suspended prison sentence for pretending to be a Microsoft employee

According to police, those who have contacted Action Fraud, the UK’s fraud and cyber reporting centre, lost just under £20.7 million through Computer Software Service Fraud between June 2016 and June 2017. There were 34,504 Computer Software Service Fraud reports made to Action Fraud In 2016/17, a 32% increase on the previous year. The number of victims and total amount of money handed over is thought to be much higher as many people feel too embarrassed to report the crime.

“Technology companies large and small, law- and policy-makers, educators and school officials, parents, young people and members of civil society all have a role to play in fostering online experiences that start with empathy and highlight inclusion and respect,” said Jacqueline Beauchere, Chief Online Safety Officer for Microsoft.

Released to mark Safer Internet Day on February 6, the Digital Civility Index surveyed people in 23 countries. It found that the UK was the second-most civil country online, ahead of Australia but behind Japan. Peru, Colombia and South Africa were the least civil.

Microsoft has a long-standing commitment to online safety, continually offering new guidance and tips to consumers for staying safe online based on research and input from stakeholders.

While the UK saw an overall improvement in online civility in this year’s index, and sexual risks – such as unwanted sexting and solicitation – fell by nine percentage points to 14%, instances of cyberbullying rose.

Unwanted contact emerged as the most common risk in the UK, with 28% of people in the UK revealing they had been targeted. The issue hit the headlines last month when a food delivery driver used a customer’s phone number to send her unwanted messages via WhatsApp. The victim, Michelle Midwinter, told The Daily Express: “The scary thing is the sheer number of females who have had similar experiences … this issue is much bigger and more widespread than I initially anticipated.”

Ten percent of people reported cyberbullying, up three percentage points on 2016 and the only category in the UK to beat the global average. Seven percent said they had been the victim of reputational attacks, unchanged from the previous index.

Beauchere said she was “surprised” that the majority of victims globally knew the perpetrators – 29% of those surveyed in the UK said their torment had been at the hands of family, friends or acquaintances. As well as feelings of depression, it also led to 29% of people in the UK becoming “less trusting of people online” (up six percentage points from the previous year).

Other findings revealed that those aged 50-74 had the highest levels of risk exposure (60%) but the lowest consequences (45%), which Microsoft said “might reflect a less risky set of online activities relative to younger age groups”. Baby Boomers were also the most likely to treat others with respect and dignity, respect other people’s points of view and pause before replying to something they disagreed with.

Internet users should follow their example, Beauchere said, reiterating four guidelines that will lead to “safer, healthier online interactions”:

  • Act with empathy, compassion and kindness in every interaction, and treat everyone you connect with online with dignity and respect
  • Respect differences, honour diverse perspectives and when disagreements surface, engage thoughtfully, and avoid name-calling and personal attacks
  • Pause before replying to things you disagree with, and don’t post or send anything that could hurt someone else, damage reputations or threaten someone’s safety
  • Stand up for yourself and others by supporting those who are targets of online abuse or cruelty, reporting threatening activity and preserving evidence of inappropriate or unsafe behaviour.

“These actions are the building blocks for the kind of online communities we want to engender and the type of positive and inclusive online movement we want to create,” Beauchere added. “We thank our partners and collaborators that have taken up the digital civility banner and are launching their own initiatives and programs rooted in this universal message of treating each other with respect and dignity.”

Anyone who believes they have been a victim of online scams should contact Action Fraud.