Spam is often a source of comedy, and perhaps the reason we choose to laugh at it is that if we don’t, the alternative we’re faced with is depressing. The reality of spammers (who we should really start labeling for what they are: criminals) is a minefield littered with despicable tactics, zero redeeming qualities, and the very real need to retch whenever you think of them. They go out of their way to slither into our inboxes, whether it’s because they want to sell us counterfeit goods and sketchy services, or whether it’s because they want to invade our privacy andsteal our money. They construct campaigns that are often impressive in their sophistication. They use commercial-grade software and hardware. They take advantage of worms, Trojans, and other exploits that were written for one purpose and one purpose only: to commit crime. If you stop and think about it, it’s easy to wonder why we ever laughed at all.
Such is the case when you consider the case of Joseph Edwards, a 17 year-old living in Windsor, Berkshire, UK. The A-level student who hanged himself, and every indication suggests that he took his own life because of a spam email he received. According to The Daily Mail, “The 17-year-old was found hanged at his home by his mother Jacqueline who has since launched a campaign to make children more aware of the dangers from internet scams.” It seems that Joseph was the victim of a scam involving an email that in addition to installing malware on his computer, demanded money in a sick, if not poorly conceived, extortion attempt.
The message “came with a Cheshire Police logo, despite the fact that he lived in Berkshire, which is served by Thames Valley Police.” The message claimed that indecent images had been found in Joseph’s possession, and that he’d have to pay the sum of £100 in order to make the matter go away. In an inquest into the matter, testimony stated that “Fearing causing his mother and sister Georgia distress, the traumatised young boy, who was studying his A-levels at Windsor Boys’ School, instead took his own life.”
Now, this story would be bad enough without any additional information, but it’s made worse by the knowledge that young Joseph was autistic. According to The Daily Mail, a coroner believes that Joseph “likely didn’t understand that the message was fake because of his learning difficulty.” In a statement, his mother points out that the boy “would have taken [the message] literally because of his autism and he didn’t want to upset” his mother or sister. Joseph, his mother said, “was a sensible, calm, kind and gentle boy – those are all words people are using about him, but his friends have also told me they will remember him as a ‘crazy dancer.’ Joseph, a keen football fan, had attended a mainstream school, despite his autism diagnosis, and the family had been planning to travel to New York together to celebrate his 18th birthday.”
This is an awful story, but it illustrates the dire need to have better mechanisms in place to educate people in the dangers of the Internet. The general public often considers spam to be a mild nuisance, and while professionals understand the very real threat posed by unsolicited messages, most people don’t take heed until they themselves have become a victim of identity theft, a botnet, bank fraud, or one of the litany of other results of Internet crime. The dangers are compounded by a world that seems to have lost its ability to discern between what’s real and what’s not. It’s become so easy to say and post whatever you please on the ‘net, and Web 2.0, which seemed like a miraculous thing eight years ago, now appears to be everything that it wasn’t intended to be. Online bullying, another very real disease of the Internet, has churned out stories like Joseph’s. While we all have our own personal way of dealing with the matters of online presence, it seems that a gradual progression to the worse is occurring.
Cyber criminals are very good at what they do. They obfuscate and confuse by using sophisticated methods alongside convincing counterfeit messages. That’s what they do, and they’re only getting better at it. But the impact to our daily lives – the economic reasons that we’re in this game to defeat them – suddenly becomes pale and unimportant when faced with the grim and disturbing impact that these crooks can have on the life of one innocent child.
And it makes us want to get them and lock them behind bars, even more so, now that we’ve learned of Joseph Edwards.