Despite growing public awareness of the dangers, cybercrime continues to be shockingly commonplace in the UAE.
Despite growing public awareness of the dangers, cybercrime continues to be shockingly commonplace in the UAE, ranging from malicious harassment and theft of personal information to costly credit card frauds and the electronic holding of files for 'ransom'. Khaleej Times explores...
A UAE resident, Maha Khan, found out about the dangers of cybercrime the hard way after being physically stalked by a man who followed her whereabouts through social media.
According to Khan, the man first expressed interest in her about 25 years ago, and started calling to harass her in the early 1990s. "I told him to go away, and everything went quiet for 10 or 15 years," she said. "But later I became very active on social media, and he found me and knew my whereabouts."
At first, the man got Khan's number and harassed her. After she blocked his numbers, Khan said he'd comment on her posts "just for attention".
But things took a turn for the worse. "I was doing a Facebook live session and checked into a place. It was a 30-minute live session, and since he was stalking me, he drove all the way from where he was and came to my guests," she recalled.
The man fled after being confronted. "Then he started messaging me privately on Instagram, and it became a little scary," Khan said. "He had access to everything I was doing, even with privacy settings."
Eventually, Khan informed the Dubai Police, who called the man to a police station and warned him to never contact her again. Since then, she hasn't heard from him.
"When I do check-in now, I think twice about doing it. I live in a country that's going to give me back-up and security if I need it, but if I were back home in Pakistan, I'd think about checking-in 100 times," she said.
Khan warned that all people - not necessarily public figures - should exercise discretion when on social media. She noted that she has very few photographs of her family members on social media platforms now. "I keep very strict restrictions about what people can see. My brother, my sister ... I don't put up their pictures. Maybe they have some enemies, or I do," she said.
A recent study from cyber security giant Kaspersky noted that while 42 per cent of UAE residents have fallen victim to cybercrime, only 21 percent of users in the UAE believe there is a threat. Less than half - 47 percent - have installed security protection on their computers and mobile devices.
Amin Hasbini, senior security researcher, global research and analysis team of Kasperky's Middle East, Turkey and Africa lab, said the cyber threat has increased as people turn to technology for more of their daily tasks.
"UAE citizens are very tech savvy and are always connected. Nowadays you can order food, do your laundry, order a cab and pay your phone bill online," he said. "This has increased our reliance on the Internet to conduct payments online. This increase in financial transactions have caught the attention of cyber criminals and increased the rate of cybercrime in the UAE."
Experts warned that carelessness can have consequences - both psychological and financial. "Although losing a huge amount of money due to credit card fraud can be devastating, financial damage is the least detrimental to our wellbeing," Hasbini said. "Physical and psychological damage is more significant because they can be easily caused and have long lasting consequences."
Of the various kinds of cybercrimes, Hasbini noted that one in particular - ransomware - has been very successful recently. In ransomware attacks, cyber criminals take personal files, encrypt them, and then ask for a ransom to hand the files back.
"One of the reasons why ransomware is successful lies in the simplicity of the business model used by cybercriminals. Once the ransomware gets into a system, there is almost no chance of getting rid of it without losing personal data," he said. "Also, the demand to pay the ransom in bitcoins makes the payment process anonymous and almost untraceable, which is very attractive to fraudsters."
One expat in Dubai, S.C, told Khaleej Times that last year he fell victim to ransomware after opening an attachment from an address he did not know. Then, "a message came on that said the files in my system had been locked and that I had to pay or lose the files".
"Eventually I paid. I thought the money was worth getting my things back. Nothing was backed up," he added. "I didn't get them back anyway. Even when I got the key, it didn't work."
Increased connectivity and exposed personal information can also lead to cyberbullying and stalking. "Personal information such as where you hang out or where you shop can land in the hands of people with bad intention which might put you in danger," Hasbini noted.