The ever-increasing dependence on the Internet in all walks of life today has thrown open new gateways for cyber villains across the globe to perpetrate a wide range of crimes. While cyber space has virtually blurred the boundaries between nations through seamless connectivity, it has also presented an opportunity to tech-savvy criminals to operate incognito.

A number of cyber crimes are hate offences or individual cases of cheating and fraud. It is relatively easy for the law enforcement agencies to trace the offenders in such cases. However, there is another anonymous category that deals in organised crimes like child pornography, hacking, identity theft, money laundering, drug trafficking and large-scale economic frauds. All these crimes generate huge sums of money without much investment.

“Cyber crime today is worth over $100 billions,” says Satheesh G. Nair, a cyber crime expert working with Truth Labs, the country’s first private forensic investigation laboratory. Referring to the infamous Nigerian e-mail scam, Mr. Nair says there are shady cyber parlours in that country which charge money from gangs for sending out nefarious e-mails in bulk offering gifts and prizes and duping the recipients into shelling out large sums of money.

These unsolicited bulk mails sent indiscriminately are called spam. This technique has become a most popular and potent tool for criminals.

Mr. Nair says a spam may contain a malicious script created by the perpetrators to gain assess to your computer’s hard-drive. “Once such a mail is opened, the script gets downloaded into the system, allowing the sender to clandestinely extract any information stored in it. This may also happen while surfing any seemingly innocuous website. For instance, a pop-up will suddenly appear on the screen seeking an action. The scripts are so designed that any action, even closing the pop-up, would eventually infect the system,” he says, adding that the perpetrators can even track mouse movements in an infected system. Once the damage is done, the system can be controlled by the perpetrator through the Internet, sitting in the remotest corner of the world.

The same way, the script attached to the spam can also “steal” e-mail addresses from an Internet account and propagate it further. Since most websites generate revenue through advertisements that are directly proportional to the number of clicks, Mr. Nair says many agencies, including those running social networking websites, might indulge in sending out spam containing invitations to a large number of people using e-mail addresses of known persons to join the network, and thus swell their membership. Many websites draft their terms and conditions for membership in such a way that they remain protected legally.

Concerned over the ramifications of the issue, veteran journalist and author M.B. Lal points out that the amount of personal data and other information that would automatically flow into the cyber coffers of a networking website and the variety of uses to which this information could be put has serious security implications. It indirectly provides access to data bases of individuals who unsuspectingly join supposedly social popular cyber networks for fun and self-education.

Nevertheless, Mr. Nair says an Internet user can secure the system using anti-spam software and intrusion detection systems that are readily available in the market. “They are available at a price ranging from Rs.700 to 2,000. Internet users should install multiple security systems for effective protection.”

Given the option, net users would also do well to tag unsolicited mails originating from a particular source as spam to block them.