Police ring alarm over online abuse

With the number of criminal cases involving online abuse passing 50 this year, police issue a warning to internet users.

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DUBAI // With the number of criminal cases involving online abuse passing 50 this year, police have issued a warning to internet users. So far this year the number of such cases filed is 51, including nine defamation cases from social networking websites and 42 cases involving extortion, threats or insults.

In 2009, an average of 5.16 cyber crime cases were filed every month. So far this year about 5.25 cases have been filed each month. Captain Rashid Ahmed Lootah, the head of Dubai Police Cyber Forensic Department, warned that the public's avid use of Facebook, Twitter and blogs has left them open to victimization by predators who take advantage of the information and images published online. "People are using blogs and social networking websites to collect information and defame people for revenge purposes," he said yesterday.

"Young people from all demographics access these sites, but do not realise the faults," he said. "Facebook especially has a technical fault that allows it to be hacked into easily and used for extortion". Captain Lootah did not elaborate on the defect. A recent court case involved a Pakistani visitor charged at the Dubai Criminal Court of First Instance with the violent sexual assault of a Filipina resident; the defendant was accused of photographing the victim and threatening to publish her images on the internet via Facebook.

The Deira chief prosecutor, Yousif Foulaz, recently referred to Facebook as a criminal tool, likening it to a gun or knife used in a crime. Captain Lootah also warned that the ease of using social networking sites allowed for the speedy dissemination of rumours and defamatory information, especially concerning women.  "Rumours can result in psychological and social consequences for victims," he said. "From what we have observed, the majority of these instances come from personal conflicts, revenge and work-related conflicts'.

In another Facebook-related court case, a business partner admitted to cursing and defaming his former employee on the site as an act of revenge. The 26-year-old Syrian man admitted before the Dubai Court of Misdemeanours that he uploaded several pictures on Facebook of the victim, a Lebanese citizen, and posted libellous comments. The Syrian told the court that he posted the comments after the plaintiff allegedly stole money from his restaurant.

According to the head of the Cyber Forensics Department, the most prominent such case presented to them involved a man who was extorting a young woman through a social networking website by a man. "The woman reported a case claiming that a man was forcing her to send him compromising pictures of her and her friends," he said. "After we arrested him, we discovered he had extorted many women in this way, but none of them wanted to file a case."

"The plaintiff saved other women from being extorted by the assailant," he added. "A lot of people hesitate in filing police reports in these cases. This allows predators to evade justice". A study conducted in July by Dubai-based public relations firm Spot On PR showed that 79 per cent of MENA internet users spend up to three hours a day updating their social networking pages. "Without a doubt, people should be careful while using social networking websites," said Alex McNabb, a group account director at Spot On.

"People have to appreciate that their online behaviour is judged in the same criteria as their offline behaviour". @Email:amustafa@thenational.ae