University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee Campus


Fall 2023

Campus Magazine

Addressing language barriers to raise awareness about cybercrime

It’s impossible to know the true extent of cybercrime in the United States, says USF Associate Professor of Criminology Fawn Ngo, for one critical reason: Many of its victims don’t speak English.

Consequently, Ngo says, they cannot access the bulk of consumer information warning about various dangers on the Internet and dispensing guidance on how to protect personal information. Neither, in most cases, are they able to report their victimization to authorities, as most of those structures are English only, too.

“That’s the problem. Even the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) only collects data from people who speak English,” Ngo says, though studies abound showing that among the most vulnerable populations for cybercrime are the approximately 25 million Americans the U.S. Census Bureau characterizes as having limited English proficiency, or LEP. Members of the Hispanic/Latino and Asia-Pacific communities are indicated as particularly at risk, according to Ngo.

Add to this a University of Illinois-Ford Foundation study that found up to 70 percent of immigrants already distrust the police, especially if they’re undocumented. “So, they may not report their victimization in the first place,” which only compounds the difficulty of assessing the full cost of cybercrime across the country, Ngo says.

Her frustration has deep roots. A refugee herself, Ngo came to America as a young girl from Vietnam in the late 1970s, shortly after the end of the Vietnam War. Today, her enthusiasm in the classroom and passion for research continue to draw energy from a lifelong desire to see equity and justice for all crime victims, regardless of race, economic status, nationality or native tongue. She realizes that achieving that ideal means overcoming many challenges — socioeconomic, geopolitical, ethnological — but remains convinced that easing barriers to communication is the optimal place to start.

Cybersecurity education and awareness at the user level are key in combating crime, so we must ensure that everyone — regardless of their language skills — has the knowledge they need to protect themselves online.

She largely dismisses existing online translation tools as “impressive technology” of limited practical use to Vietnamese-Americans with limited English proficiency, who have an average reading/comprehension level of fifth grade. Meanwhile, a Pew Research Center analysis reports that while almost 90 percent of U.S.-born Latinos are English proficient, the same is true for only 34 percent of foreign-born, Spanish-speaking arrivals (even after a decade or more in the U.S.) — a potential victim pool of more than 13 million of the estimated 62 million Latinos in the U.S., according to Census Bureau data.

“Our focus groups show the information (being conveyed) cannot be too difficult to understand, too technical, and also, increasingly, that they should be video,” Ngo says. It’s a preview of a scholarly article she’s submitted, and now under review, that reports some of her findings from a series of workshops with primarily Spanish- and Vietnamese-speaking Internet users.

“A lot of participants advised us to create videos for people who cannot read or write English — about things like how to set your Facebook to private. Or what is two-factor authentication? Or why you shouldn’t ‘save’ your login information when using a public computer at the local library.

“Time and time again, people (in our groups) told us they don’t practice these and other aspects of good cyber-hygiene because they simply ‘don’t know how’ or they ‘never heard of this.’ They also indicated that they relied primarily on family and friends as sources of guidance regarding online safety, when they really should have access to more credible sources.”

Hence, the Cybercrime Prevention and Reporting for the Limited English Proficiency Population (CPR4LEPP) online resource Ngo is now developing with a team of criminologists and cybersecurity experts to platform an array of relevant content in a range of languages (starting with Spanish and Vietnamese). She’s already created several educational modules addressing key topics such as the different types of cybercrime prevalent today, the importance of reporting if you’ve been victimized and Top 10 steps to protect oneself online. They add to material she continues to curate in support of two Facebook pages (in Spanish and Vietnamese), including a weekly series of online videos covering subjects from the Dark Web to cyber-bullying, cyberviolence and deep fakes. The platform will also enable LEP Internet users to report cybercrime incidents in their native language.

Ngo hopes to launch the new website later in 2023, supported by a multilingual promotional campaign engaging local and regional businesses, public agencies, libraries, churches and other community groups. They’ll be asked to distribute business cards announcing the program in English on one side and in different languages on the other, along with a QR code. Accessing information will be as simple and immediate as scanning the code with a mobile device.

“Cybersecurity education and awareness at the user level are key in combating crime,” Ngo says, “so we must ensure that everyone — regardless of their language skills — has the knowledge they need to protect themselves online.”

Enlisting more professional translators to create content for the project, hiring a video editor and securing a media specialist to oversee social media outlets and promote the resource online are high on the list of objectives that could be achieved with increased funding, says Ngo, who also wants to expand in-person workshops on cybersecurity and Internet safety and disseminate information through greater exposure on ethnic radio 
and news outlets.

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About Sarasota-Manatee Campus Magazine

Momentum is published by USF Research and Innovation and the Office of University Communications and Marketing on the Sarasota-Manatee campus. The University of South Florida, a member of the Association of American Universities, is a high-impact research university with campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee.