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U.K. police: We're overwhelmed by e-crime

Metropolitan Police in London suggests creating national cybercrime unit to help local police departments coordinate efforts.

London's Metropolitan Police has warned that the U.K.'s local police forces "can no longer cope" with e-crime, and has called for a national unit to be set up to address the problem.

In a report published Thursday and written by detective chief inspector Charlie McMurdie of the Met's specialist crime directorate, the Met said that a national e-crime unit is needed to tackle cybercrime. The unit would act as a central coordination point for police officers across the country, who are currently struggling to cope with the threat of e-crime.

The report described cybercrime as "the most rapidly expanding form of criminality, encompassing both new criminal offences in relation to computers (viruses and hacking, etc.) and "old" crimes (fraud and harassment, etc.), committed using digital or computer technology."

At present, the responsibility for fighting e-crime is split between different law enforcement units. Serious, or Level 3, crimes are supposedly handled by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), although it emerged this week that the agency may be struggling to fulfill its mandate. Less serious crimes, which fall into categories the police call Level 1 and Level 2, are meant to be dealt with at a local police level.

However, McMurdie's report shows that this approach is failing. She warned that "specialist (local) e-crime units can no longer cope with all e-crime."

The proposed solution--creating a national e-crime unit--appears to be similar to the National Hi Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU), which was folded into SOCA last year. Some experts have claimed that SOCA is failing to address e-crime effectively, or to collaborate properly with British businesses.

The Met declined to comment on whether its report was calling for NHTCU to be re-established, which would effectively mean that SOCA had failed in its responsibilities toward e-crime.

Other key points in the report:

• The ability of law enforcement to investigate all types of e-crime locally and globally "must be mainstreamed as an integral part of every investigation," including, for example, investigations focused on murder, robbery, extortion demands, identity theft or fraud.

• The police cannot investigate all e-crime allegations "due to the volume of offences and the national and international nature of e-crime, sometimes involving hundreds or thousands of victims."

• The Met would be willing to establish its own overarching computer crime unit to coordinate the response of its existing specialist units involved in fighting cybercrime. These are the Computer Crime Unit; Paedophile Unit; Counter Terrorist Command Intelligence Bureau; Clubs and Vice; the Computer Services Laboratory; Professional Standards; and Covert Policing Command.

• Few U.K. virus writers and hackers have been prosecuted. "The policing of e-crime faces the challenge of keeping pace with technological advances," said the report. "Hackers and virus writers have evolved from largely enthusiastic amateur 'criminals' to financially motivated, organised global criminal enterprises."

Tom Espiner of ZDNet UK reported from London.