The internet offers a wealth of information as well as a myriad of opportunities for learning and earning. Most people use their computers and smartphones to access material for entirely legal purposes, but there are a growing number of users who use the internet to cause harm or loss to their victims through various cybercrimes. Someone who hides behind a computer screen to commit such acts may end up with a hefty fine and/or time behind bars. Below are the top 10 most common kinds of cybercrimes to be aware of.

1. Hacking

Hacking involves obtaining unauthorized access to a computer or network, regardless of whether it belongs to an individual or organization. To avoid hacking, it is advisable to change your password from time to time and ignore links contained in emails from unverifiable sources.

Many victims won't be aware that they have been hacked until they notice financial loss or start receiving threats to disclose private – possibly damaging and embarrassing – information. Depending on the state, the maximum penalty for extortion or blackmail is a fine of up to $10,000 for each conviction, and imprisonment of up to 15 years for each individual extortion attempt.

2. Malware

The installation of malicious software programs can cripple a network, resulting in extreme damage to the victim’s software and/or loss of vital data. This type of cybercrime has moved on from just maliciously trying to disrupt a victim’s business. Cybercriminals have become more sophisticated and financially driven, hence the creation of ransomware.

Ransomware is a form of malware that encrypts digital data and prevents the rightful owner from using it until a ransom has been paid. Organizations with critical structures – such as utility companies, hospitals and drug companies – have been approached by cybercriminals demanding millions of dollars in ransoms in order to decrypt essential files and recover data.

3. Spamming

Spam is unsolicited email usually sent in bulk with the hope of achieving commercial gain. An inbox full of spam is extremely annoying, but it is not just a nuisance. Sending multiple emails is a federal crime that could lead to up to five years' incarceration if the spammer is operating for commercial benefit.

There are individuals and companies who will harvest email addresses from the internet and sell them to third parties for the purpose of spamming. Most reputable websites will offer users the opportunity to opt in or opt out of receiving marketing messages. Less reputable ones will not, and may even insist that the act of using their website constitutes your agreement to receiving marketing information.

4. Phishing

A victim of phishing will usually find their bank account significantly depleted in a short space of time. Sometimes, perpetrators will email the victim asking for personal details. Banks insist that they do not ask for full passwords or PINs by email, therefore you should not share these with anyone purporting to be from your bank.

More sophisticated offenders will go to the extreme of designing a convincing replica of the real financial institution’s website. Their victims are lured into clicking on a link within an email and inputting their private details into the fake website.

5. Identity Theft

Identify theft involves using the identity of another person to commit any unlawful activity, or to aid or abet such activity. Once an identify thief has a victim’s personal information, they may be able to impersonate the victim and wreak havoc on their life.

The type of information that is particularly valuable to cybercriminals is your date of birth, Social Security number, debit/credit card number, passwords, PINs and signature. Identify theft is a federal crime, and a person found guilty can face up to 15 years in prison, as well as a substantial fine.

6. Cyberstalking

Cyberstalking usually follows the pattern of online harassment and bullying, with the intention of making the victim’s life utterly miserable. Many perpetrators feel comfortable attacking victims from behind the safety of their computer screens under the guise of anonymity. Often, law enforcement officers will obtain details of anonymous posters from their service providers or from the website on which the perpetrator registered to pursue their victim.

Less than a third of all states have specific anti-stalking laws that cover the internet. In United States v. David T Matusiewicz (2016), three defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment for murder following the first federal cyberstalking case that resulted in death.

7. Child Grooming & Child Pornography

Child pornography is any visual depiction of sexually explicit behavior involving a minor (under the age of 18). This includes photographs of naked minors, regardless of whether they're involved in any sexual activity, provided that the photographs are sexually suggestive.

Many criminals spend time in chat rooms frequented by minors with the intention of befriending victims, and obtaining and circulating sexually explicit images of them. An offender can be prosecuted under state child pornography law as well as under federal law. Sentences can range from a five-year minimum up to a maximum of 20 years.

8. Wire Fraud

Criminals who use computers, phones or fax machines to send information across state lines with the intention of defrauding a victim may be charged with wire fraud. A prosecutor must prove that the perpetrator devised a scheme aimed at obtaining money or property by fraudulent promises, and that they used the internet to carry out the scheme.

Such fraud includes Ponzi schemes, or promising to sell or transfer property that you do not own. The penalty for wire fraud can be quite extensive, including a fine and up to 20 years' imprisonment. Wire frauds committed in situations declared to be government emergencies can attract prison time of up to 30 years.

9. Copyright Infringement

The illegal downloads of music, TV shows and films is often seen by the offender as a victimless crime. However, this intellectual property is unique and valuable to the owner. Breaches of copyright can deprive the creators, publishers and artists of millions of dollars in earnings.

Copyright infringement is now so widespread that the victims focus less on pursuing individuals for legal redress and instead take action against the service providers who facilitate the infringement.

10. Cybersquatting & Typosquatting

The victims of cybersquatting are usually profitable and well-known brands with recognized trademarks. Most high-profile brands will already have registered their domain names, but sometimes these are unwittingly allowed to lapse. The pirate purchases the domain in bad faith and demands money to transfer ownership back to the legitimate owner.

In cases of typosquatting, the pirate purchases a domain name targeted at people who incorrectly input the name of their chosen website. Often, users do not realize that they are on the wrong website until it is too late.