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Nigeria & Romania Ranked Among Top Cybercrime Havens

A survey of cybercrime experts assessing the top cybercrime-producing nations results in some expected leaders — Russia, Ukraine, and China — but also some surprises.

5 Min Read
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An academic research project to gain insight into which nations produce the most cybercrime has ranked the usual suspects of Russia, Ukraine, China, and the United States at the very top but also found some relative surprises with Nigeria at No. 5, Romania at No. 6, and Brazil at No. 9.

Nations with high technology levels typically scored fairly high on the World Cybercrime Index (WCI), especially if those countries also have state-sponsored threat actors that overlap with cybercriminal groups. Yet other nations dominated in one of the five areas, such as Nigeria taking the top score for scams and Romania scoring highly in data and identity theft, according to the university research effort by academic institutions in the United Kingdom, Australia, and France.

While cybersecurity experts have long associated different countries with different types of cybercrime — Russia with banking and ransomware and China with intellectual-property theft and financial crimes, for example — this is the first time that researchers have been able to compare various countries based on specific attributes and cybercriminal approaches, says Miranda Bruce, a postdoctoral fellow in sociology at the University of Oxford.

"If you look closely at these five indices, you'll get more insight into the character of each country as a cybercrime hotspot," she says. "Nigeria is No. 1 in the Scams index, but comes between 5th and 10th in the other four cybercrime types. Clearly they're a significant producer of all types of cybercrime, but it's also clear that, as a country, they specialize."

The researchers collected survey data from 92 cybercrime experts, asking them to pick the top five cybercrime-producing nations in five different categories of crime: technical products and services; attacks and extortion; data and identity theft; scams; and cashing out or money laundering. For each nation, participants were asked to rate the nation on the impact of the crimes, the actors' professionalism, and their technical skill.

Table of world cybercrime index scores

In all, the cybercrime experts nominated 97 different countries, according to a paper the group published in the journal PLOS One.

The WCI scores may not, however, discern between true cybercriminals residing in a nation and those mercenary groups that also conduct operations on behalf of their state sponsors, says Sean McNee, vice president of research and data at DomainTools, a domain security services firm.

"When evaluating cybercrime groups in locales such as Russia, China, Iran, or North Korea, it is always challenging to determine if groups are operating purely on their own accord or operating on behalf of a nation-state sponsor," McNee says. "This makes cybercrime actors in other countries more interesting to look into, such as Nigeria, India, and Brazil."

Low Technical Score, High Threat

Nigeria's top marks in the scams category — in which the researchers lumped together advance-fee fraud, business email compromise, and online auction fraud — underscore that a highly developed cybercrime ecosystem does not necessarily require significant depth of technical skills and infrastructure. While Nigeria has prioritized its cybersecurity capabilities, the country remains a bastion for email fraud, as demonstrated by the case of a Nigerian-based group conducting romance scams with a US-based national, who was sentenced earlier this year.

Romania, which ranked No. 6 on the list, has a long history of hosting a cybercriminal ecosystem, so its ranking is a bit of a surprise, says Chester Wisniewski, director and field CTO at cybersecurity firm Sophos.

"Romania has always had elevated cybercrime activity ... likely due to its well-educated population and proximity and relationships with neighboring cybercrime states like Ukraine, Russia, and Moldova," he says. "Romania has been cooperative with cybercrime takedowns, but I am not sure they are very proactive in nature."

The researchers plan to investigate how the World Cybercrime Index correlates with other characteristics of each nation — such as gross domestic product (GDP), income inequality, Internet penetration, and corruption — and how cybercrime policies can impact their scores, the University of Oxford's Bruce says.

"There's still much to learn about how and why countries like Russia, China, and the USA have become major cybercrime hotspots, but the countries that appear lower in the Index will tell us more about the nuances of cyber criminality," she says. "That is, the specific combination of factors that enable a region to become a thriving economic hub of cybercriminal activity. It's important that we pay attention to these countries and regions in the coming years."

Room for Improvement

Unfortunately, the data gives little actionable information to defenders, although it could be useful to policymakers and diplomats interested in influencing countries and gaining cooperation, says Sophos' Wisniewski.

"If these stats are accurate, only the countries listed are in a position to address the problem of them being a source country for cybercrime," he says. "Many of those listed might not only be uninterested in reducing their rank, but they may also be proud of it."

The researchers conducted the survey in 2021, so unfortunately, that means that the rankings have aged, and do not include major changes to the cyberthreat landscape, such as Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the most recent rise in romance scams, and an increase in cryptocurrency scams from North Korea, says DomainTools' McNee.

"This suggests that encouraging policies to promote technology sectors in these countries — turn cybercriminals to entrepreneurs — could have a net positive impact on the economy," he says. "It may be more beneficial to track these trends in countries further down the WCI to help encourage such policies before a notable cybercrime industry takes hold."

About the Author(s)

Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer

Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline Journalism (Online) in 2003 for coverage of the Blaster worm. Crunches numbers on various trends using Python and R. Recent reports include analyses of the shortage in cybersecurity workers and annual vulnerability trends.

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