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Gangbangers' online M.O. remarkably normal

Street gang members act much like other young adults online -- although they do have a higher tendency to engage in deviant behavior, say criminal justice researchers.

"Much of what they do is age appropriate," one of the researchers, David Pyrooz, an assistant professor at the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas told CSO.

"They message and chat with their friends, they shop online, they use iTunes and they watch videos," he said.

That's not to say gang members don't engage in criminal behavior online. In fact, they're 70 percent more likely to engage in such behavior than their non-gang peers, the researchers discovered.

Typical online misbehavior included illegal downloads of entertainment, selling stolen property, selling drugs, harassing individuals, arranging assaults, lining up targets for theft and uploading videos of their real world illegal activity, mostly fights.

What gangbangers don't do is engage in sophisticated cybercriminal activities, such as phishing, identify theft and hacking into commercial enterprises, the researchers discovered.

"They're not Anonymous," Pyrooz said. "They don't have the technological competency to do cybercrimes."

When asked about their computer skills, most were limited to using Microsoft Word and Internet Explorer, Pyrooz noted. "Very few could write code or had the characteristics to really be able do some damage on the Internet," he said.

It's been a concern of law enforcement that gangs will get online and perpetrate crimes, as well as establish links with other organized crime or terrorist organizations, he continued.

[Also see: Hacktivism moves from pranks to problems]

Much of what gangs do is based on trust. "The anonymity of the Internet makes it difficult for the gangs to trust who is on the other side of the computer," Pyrooz explained.

"That, combined with their unspectacular technological skills, really limits their abilities to commit crimes online," he added.

Pyrooz and colleague and Scott H. Decker, director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University in Phoenix, interviewed 600 gang, ex-gang and non-gang members in Cleveland, Fresno, Calif., Los Angeles, Phoenix and St. Louis about their online activity. Findings appeared in articles in the newsletter of the Justice Research and Statistics Association and Justice Quarterly.

Although gangbangers and hackers may share a similar age group, that's one of the few things they share in common, noted Decker, who has also written a book on gangs with Pyrooz and G. David Curry, Confronting Gangs: Crime and Community, published by Oxford University Press.

"Hackers are more likely to be loners," he told CSO in an interview. "They reject any form of authority."

"A gang isn't a tremendous form of authority but it requires some obedience and some discipline and some leaders," he continued. "Hackers don't want to follow instructions and be obedient."

The cyber underworld, in general, looks at gangs with a hard eye. "The problem with aligning yourself with gang members is they lack a certain level of discipline and self control," Decker said.

"They would much rather do things to make a point than to realize a profit," he continued. "Selling drugs on a street corner dressed in all red and driving around the neighborhood shooting people are bad for business because they attract police attention."

"There doesn't appear to be much penetration of the hacking world by the gang world," he added. "The hackers don't need much of what gang members can do."

Read more about malware/cybercrime in CSOonline's Malware/Cybercrime section.


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