20200722 The anatomy of crime originated in e-mail.

A random fraud by a criminal who has bought a mailing list on the internet

Individual criminals or small-time networks are a nuisance and pose a widespread risk to many people but the risk they create is not, usually systemic.

These are small-time love-scams and advance fee fraud, devastating to the individuals but as a widespread threat, nothing much to worry about.

However, while the systemic financial risk is relatively unimportant, there is a cyclical risk that has been present for more than 20 years although the execution is evolving.

E-mail solicitations of the “African Prince” or “you are the only living relative of a wealthy miner” type come and go. After all, the so-called Nigerian Scam long predates the internet. In the 1970s, we used to get them by real mail: someone actually sat and typed out letters and put them in the post. We used to get them by telex, too, although that was less common. Then there was fax. As the cost of international faxes fell, this became such a nuisance that we used to turn off our fax machines out of office hours. These had one purpose: to open a line of communication through which a fraudster could encourage his target to send money.

These criminals have developed their operations across multiple internet channels, adding first bulletin boards and then the development of bulletin boards, a wide range of social media and web 2.0 (remember that?) applications.

The cyclical nature is in the story, not in the nature of the risk. The nature of the risk is both constant (in that the old frauds are proven money makers) and evolving (in that the original fraud is often not the only purpose of the mail).