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Reports of social media-related crime rise almost 800 percent in the U.K. in the last four years

As the world gets more plugged in, it’s not surprising that online crime is increasing. What may be slightly more unexpected, however, is the scale of the increase. According to official figures released by 29 police forces across the United Kingdom, complaints to police relating to alleged crime linked to Twitter and Facebook have risen a staggering 780 percent since 2008.

According to the figures that were released by authorities across England, Scotland and Wales under the British Freedom of Information Act, police received 4,908 reports in 2012 reagrding possible crimes linked to at least one of the two major social networking sites, up substantially from the 556 reports filed four years ago. Chief Constable Andy Trotter of the Association of Chief Police Officers said the increase points to the need to police a very different environment from the one in which many officers come from.

“It is a new world for all and we could end up in a situation where each constabulary needs a dedicated Twitter squad,” Totter said. However, he said he believes that such a task force would not be the best use of resources a given the difficult financial times the economy is currently facing.  Nonetheless, Trotter said, “we need to accept that people have the right to communicate, even to communicate in an obnoxious or disagreeable way, and there is no desire on the part of the police to get involved in that judgment. But equally, there are many offenses involving social media such as harassment or genuine threats of violence which cause real harm. It is that higher end of offending which forces need to concentrate on.”

As Trotter suggests, not all of the complaints to police this year have necessarily led to criminal prosecution. Only  653 people, a fraction of the nearly 5,000 complaints, have faced criminal charges as a result of the 2012 allegations. That number is up from 46 people charged in 2008, a dramatic increase of 1,419 percent. Obscene messaging, bullying and multiple death threats are among the reported crimes that have led to prosecution.

If there’s some comfort to be had in the sizable increase of this kind of online activity, it’s that not all of the crimes reported are necessarily the “fault” of social networks or the Internet as a whole. Trotter revealed that, in his estimation, many of the crimes reported could be considered crimes that existed before the rise of social media — including stalking, fraud and harassment — although he admitted that there were also those that exist as a result of the medium.

“In many ways,” said Totter, “online communities can be self-regulating and good at weeding out unacceptable behavior. We need to find a way of distinguishing between that type of behavior and that which requires police intervention.”

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