According to the Internet security company McAfee, despite a global recession and ramped-up security efforts worldwide, cybercrime has grown by double digits every year for the last ten years.
In "A Good Decade for Cybercrime," a report released today, McAfee shares the unsettling news that while the rest of us have enjoyed a decade of booming Internet technology, cybercriminals have thrived by exploiting it.
In the U.S. alone, the Internet Crime Complaint Center says that cybercrime losses to consumers doubled from 2008 to 2009, reaching $560 million, while consumer complaints rose by more than 22 percent.
But David Marcus, McAfee's director of security research and communications, said that cybercriminals didn't always know that they had such a lucrative opportunity on their hands.
"When you look back to the early, early 2000s, you saw a lot of things that were either done for the sake of irritating someone or done in a haphazard sense. There was really no sense of data being valuable," he said. "Then you jump ahead a year or two and it's like a light bulb went off. ...[Cybercrimals thought] There's data, I can make money from that data."
At the beginning of the decade, he said, computer crime was measured in terms of how much downtime the IT department suffered and the loss in productivity. But the stakes changed as computer use ballooned and consumers became more interested in e-banking and online shopping.
"It's the financial transactions that really started changing things," he said. "E-commerce exploding, people buying and selling goods online and the transferring of things online."
As more consumers participated in the world of e-commerce, cybercrooks refined their ways of exploiting it, he said. They developed adware, which automatically displays pop-ups meant to get users to purchase products or services. They turned to spyware, which tracks websites users visit and records what they type.
In the past decade, botnets also become en vogue among Web-savvy criminals, McAfee said. They learned to infect hundreds, even thousands, of computers at once and remotely control them to distribute spam, steal information or attack other websites. In 2010, McAfee reported that it saw an average of six million new botnet infections each month.
As people continue to turn to social networks and mobile computing, Marcus said, the bad guys of the Internet will follow.
"That's fertile ground for cyber criminals -- those huge jumps in technology, those changes," he said.
For example, Twitter's "trending terms" may let the rest of us see what the online world is buzzing about, but Marcus said it gives crooks "phenomenal insight into how to scam people." They can turn those trending terms into links meant to send unsuspecting Twitter users to malware-loaded websites.
Location data from services like Foursquare and Gowalla give criminals unprecedented information about users' habits, patterns and when they're usually not at home. McAfee warns that online data could lead to real-world crimes, such as robbery.