The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Kids as young as 7 are proving to be quite the little cybercriminals.

In our globally interconnected world, cybercrime is a pervasive threat, touching many lives. But a particularly alarming trend has surfaced: the spike in cybercriminal activities among teenagers, reflecting a broader and more troubling search for quick money within this cohort group.

In Africa, for instance, a great number of criminal experiences are linked to young individuals aged 15 to 23. As technology becomes further embedded in our daily lives—with over 4.5 billion people online—half the world’s population may be vulnerable to cybercrime.

This article explores the quest for easy money among young people, especially teenagers. It examines the causes, consequences, and potential solutions to this growing concern.

Young people, particularly those with a keen interest in technology, are more likely to fall into cyber criminality. This susceptibility often stems from a passion for gaming, leading to visits to websites and forums that share computer game cheat codes, a potential breeding ground for malware and criminal activity.

Elliott was 16 years old when he hacked TalkTalk in a now infamous case that resulted in the compromise of over 150,000 customer accounts. He was later jailed for separate cybercrime offenses and has been indicted for even more serious crimes in the U.S.

London schoolgirl Betsy was just seven when she demonstrated in just 10 minutes how to hack a stranger’s laptop via an unsecured public WiFi network. How did she do it? By searching online for a how-to guide. Around 14,000 video tutorials were returned from YouTube alone at the time.

Cybercrime graph

An unnamed 16-year-old Australian schoolboy breached Apple’s security multiple times, making off with 90GB of “secure files” and accessing customer accounts in the process. His lawyer said the teenager did it because he admired Apple and dreamed of landing a job with the company.

The pandemic accelerated global digitalization, providing cybercriminals with myriad opportunities to exploit weaknesses in digital infrastructures. African countries, actively adopting mobile money transactions and digital finance, have experienced a surge in cybercrime.

The UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) warns that individuals as young as 12 could be at risk. While some may seek financial gain, others may pursue challenges to win accolades within their peer groups.

According to NCA data, police reports of students deploying DDoS attacks increased 107% from 2019 to 2020. The median age for referrals to the NCA is 15, and children as young as nine have been caught launching these attacks. Alarmingly, many do not perceive the likelihood of legal consequences or recognize the criminality of their actions.

A 2022 Interpol report notes that as African nations embrace digital finance, online scams, especially in banking and credit card fraud, have become prevalent. African teenagers, prolific users of online platforms, have unintentionally become both victims and perpetrators of these frauds.

During an outreach event in Nigeria, a survey revealed widespread support for cyber fraudster activities among teenagers, especially when targeting foreign entities. Shockingly, 55% remained open to joining a “cyber fraudsters” team if given the opportunity.

The global economic toll of cybercrime is staggering. It cost economies around $787,671 per hour in 2021, or nearly $7 billion lost worldwide.

By some estimates, the costs from cybercrime could reach nearly $15 trillion by 2024, with a potential for even sharper increases thereafter. This exponential growth in cyberattacks requires nations to devise effective cyber counter-strategies.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s recorded 21,832 business email compromise (BEC) complaints in 2022, with losses exceeding $2.7 billion. Tragically, a ransomware attack on a German hospital led to a patient’s death after a critical delay in treatment.

The teenage years, marked by curiosity and susceptibility to influence, create a dangerous allure for quick money and cyber fraud. Exposure to cybercrime activities can distort perceptions of life, undermine moral values and lead to a lifelong pattern of criminality.

Neglecting to fight teenage exposure to cyber fraud could result in a devastating loss of intellectual capital, diverting young minds from contributing positively to the economy.

I have observed the vulnerability of teenagers in my work with youth organizations. Recently, three children were caught traveling to learn how to be a “Yahoo Boy,” a popular name for cyber criminals in Nigeria, revealing a worrying trend.

Contributing to this decay are poor social media influences and parental negligence. Many teenagers look to money as the sole benchmark for success, a perception that may need to be recalibrated.

The challenge is vast, but global forces are mobilizing to combat cybercrime. Agencies like Interpol and the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity are creating waves of change.

Yet modern approaches must be developed to re-orient teenagers. Initiatives like government-run cyber-security programs for school-aged students can guide them toward careers in cyber-security—an industry with major workplace shortages and rewarding prospects.

The global rise of cybercrime among teenagers is a complex problem requiring urgent, collaborative action. By focusing on the vulnerabilities of African teenagers, this article underscores the need to invest in cyber-security awareness and international cooperation. Adolescence is a critical life stage, and by educating our youth on cyber ethics, we can build a more secure digital future, protecting the next generation from the risks of cybercrime.

Hillary Wisdom Ugochukwu is a proud alumnus of the prestigious Michael Okpara University, Nigeria. Hillary is a tech enthusiast and advocate for the youth, committed to tackling cybercrime among this demographic. His journey has led him to volunteer with NGOs like TOM, YALI, and GAP. Currently, he is the co-founder of Xperzon, an initiative aimed at guiding young minds towards the constructive and responsible use of technology.