The Role of Informal Workers in Online Economic Crime

Date created: 
Online economic crime
Informal work

(Context) Online economic crime leverages information technologies (IT) for illegal wealth redistribution, such as banking theft. Such crime requires a series of actions, a scheme, to be successful. Informal workers, individuals whose economic activities escape regulations, can be leveraged to execute various tasks surrounding these schemes. However, what these workers represent for online economic crime organizations, and their impact on the reach and sophistication of the crime, has yet to be uncovered. This thesis focuses on understanding the contexts, motivations, and organizations of those behind online economic crime. While doing so, it assesses the role and availability of an informal IT workforce surrounding the crime organization and its likelihood to participate in such criminal schemes. (Methods and Data) This thesis builds on three data sources: (1) 21 semi-structured interviews with experts, (2) a private chat log containing discussions among individuals involved in online economic crime, and (3) two datasets on an informal IT workforce operating on a digital labor platform. A blend of qualitative and quantitative analyses is developed, including inductive thematic analysis, non-parametric statistical hypothesis tests, and group-based trajectory modeling. (Results) The findings illustrate three key contextual factors influencing those behind online economic crime: a lack of legal economic opportunities, a lack of deterrents and the availability of drifting means. Organizations behind online economic crime are found to take various forms, from organized, to enterprise-like, loose networks or communities. They are also characterized by a large sphere of influence given the indispensable workers hired to help with the crime orchestration. Among them, informal workers from the IT sector are found to be particularly important: they represent a pool of potential workers for all legal tasks surrounding online economic crime, and they can be leveraged easily due to digital labor platforms. However, further investigations illustrate that the benefits of hiring informal IT workers may be hindered by high transaction costs, including high hiring, switching, and monitoring costs. Moreover, the likelihood of informal IT workers to participate in crime-oriented spaces is found to be limited. (Conclusion) This study sheds light on the organization of online economic crime and the role of informal IT workers at the periphery. It provides both theoretical and empirical explanations as to why online economic crime is characterized by long reach, in terms of victims, and sophistication. It also offers nuanced concepts (e.g., drifters, informal workforce) to better grasp the organization of online economic crime and the degrees of involvement of those surrounding the crime.

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Martin Bouchard
Arts & Social Sciences: School of Criminology
Thesis type: 
(Thesis) Ph.D.