Tracking Down Crime in a Virtual World

BMBF backs research project involving experts from Steinbeis

The growth in e-commerce has been one of the most important consumer trends of the last decade. But in parallel to a shift in the shopping habits of many Germans, there has a been a change in the side effects of crime. Once the initial mistrust toward online mail-order companies was dealt with, all eyes turned on data protection issues and now the major problem is fraud, which is affecting many online sellers. This mainly revolves around payments either not being made at all or being transferred through illegally accessed payment channels. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is currently sponsoring School GRC (the School of Governance, Risk & Compliance at Steinbeis University Berlin) alongside the University of Göttingen and Zalando SE to look more closely into the issue over the course of the next three years.

Often, personal identities set up online to buy products are stolen or forged and this makes it difficult to investigate incidents and prosecute criminals. According to an organized crime survey issued by the Federal Crime Office (BKA), property and financial crime in general (including online and credit card fraud) have become a particularly important source of income for criminals in recent years (Federal Situation Survey on Organized Crime, 2013). A survey has yet to be carried out on organized fraud in e-commerce, however.

This hitherto generally neglected topic has been the focal topic of a collaborative research project called ABBO, which was launched at the beginning of this year. ABBO (a German acronym for the “analysis and combat of organized fraud in online shopping”) will investigate new security concepts aimed at analyzing and combatting organized fraud in e-commerce. The project involves systematically pulling together key issues relating to technology, legal aspects and crime. School GRC (which has many years of experience in the field of business crime) and its project partners have successfully attracted BMBF funding with a research concept that falls under a general program called “Research for Civil Security.” The project sponsor on behalf of the BMBF is VDI Technologiezentrum GmbH.

Under the leadership of the network coordinator Prof. Dr. Konrad Rieck (University of Göttingen), School GRC is responsible for aspects relating to background research and gray areas/unreported incidents. The aim is to assess the current level of risk and thus lay a foundation for experts at the Institute of Computer Science at Göttingen University to look into programming and the development of an evaluation platform. The work carried out by School GRC will involve researching the empirical evidence relating to fraud in e-commerce. The results this provides will be used to make actual statements about structural preparations and set up the evaluation platform. The evaluation platform is a core aspect of the technological solution and its aim is to pinpoint incidences of fraud early and assess the risk for online sellers in real time. But the aim of the platform is not just to provide more effective protection for online sellers. The project is also about generating relevant information for police investigations and law enforcement.

To detect irregular patterns of behavior, the platform works with a variety of interdisciplinary research fields and pseudonym order data. Using pseudonym data also provides the required degree of data protection, since the data that is affected is only visible to the online seller. This allows Germany’s biggest online seller, Zalando, to try out the concept in an actual online environment and thus say with confidence whether the evaluation platform is working and can actually be used in the future at a reasonable cost. Other partners involved in the consortium are Heinemann SE & Co. KG and the Göttingen police department.

The project got off to a promising start in February when ABBO was voted “Project of the Month” by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

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