Perceived Formal and Informal Sanctions in Deterring Cybercrime in a College Sample

Date01 August 2021
Published date01 August 2021
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2021, Vol. 37(3) 452 –470
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10439862211001630
Perceived Formal and
Informal Sanctions in
Deterring Cybercrime
in a College Sample
Adam M. Bossler1
The threat of formal sanctions is the criminal justice system’s primary tool to
discourage online and offline deviant behavior. Yet, scholars have expressed strong
concerns about the effectiveness of formal sanctions to deter cybercrime. Even more
surprising is the sparsity of deterrence research in the cybercrime literature. This
study examined the effects of perceived formal and informal sanctions on digital
piracy, computer hacking, and online harassment in a large American college sample.
Perceived formal sanctions was negatively correlated with software piracy, media
piracy, password cracking, accessing accounts, sending mean messages privately
online, and posting mean messages. Higher levels of perceived formal sanctions
did not significantly predict any form of cybercrime, however, when controlling for
informal sanctions and deviant peer associations. The implications of the findings for
our ability to deter deviant behavior in cyberspace are explored.
deterrence, formal sanctions, informal sanctions, cybercrime, piracy, computer
hacking, online harassment
Cybercrime continues to be one of the largest threats to public and financial safety
throughout the world (Dupont, 2019; Holt & Bossler, 2016). The frequency and seri-
ousness of most forms of cybercrime are worsening with billions in financial damages
1Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, GA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Adam M. Bossler, Georgia Southern University, 1332 Southern Drive, Statesboro, GA 30458, USA.
1001630CCJXXX10.1177/10439862211001630Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeBossler
Bossler 453
and unmeasurable emotional harm. This trend over the last two decades is not surpris-
ing considering more individuals around the world, including both potential motivated
offenders and suitable targets, are obtaining easier access to cheaper technologies and
the internet, which has allowed more daily activities to occur online (Holt & Bossler,
2009). This formula has led to almost an infinite number of criminal opportunities in
the virtual world.
The anonymity potentially afforded by the internet creates significant challenges in
identifying who or what group is responsible for an online act in many cases (Brenner,
2007). This inability to attribute responsibility to a specific person or group is espe-
cially problematic because most nation’s legal systems are based on the Classical
School’s deterrence theory and the ability to prevent crime by threatening formal sanc-
tions against responsible parties (Brenner, 2007, 2010). Most nations, including the
United States, have heavily centered their cybercrime prevention efforts on improving
law enforcement’s capabilities of responding to an increasing amount of cybercrime
(Holt et al., 2015). If cybercrime cannot be attributed to certain actors, a state is not
able to effectively exert its control in cyberspace (Berenblum et al., 2019). Scholars
have therefore been concerned about the effectiveness of deterrence-based strategies
in preventing different forms of cybercrime, including but not limited to digital piracy,
hacking, and online harassment (Brenner, 2010).
Although these strong concerns exist, the effectiveness of threatened formal sanc-
tions in cyberspace has surprisingly not received the same level of empirical testing as
other criminological theories, such as social learning theory and the general theory of
crime (see Holt & Bossler, 2016). The little empirical research examining deterrence
principles in cyberspace has indicated that formal sanctions may have limited to no
significant effects in preventing cybercrime, including digital piracy, hacking, and
online harassment (Holt & Bossler, 2016). In addition, most of these tests only exam-
ined one type of cybercrime offense, such as digital piracy, and not a fuller variety of
cybercrime offenses. Some of this limited research on deterrence in cyberspace has
also examined the role of informal sanctions in the prevention of cybercrime (e.g.,
Bossler, 2019). The limited research indicates that informal sanctions may have stron-
ger effects than formal sanctions in cyberspace, which supports the traditional litera-
ture (Holt & Bossler, 2016). This study adds to our current existing body of knowledge
by examining the effects of perceived formal sanctions and informal sanctions on
software piracy, media piracy, minor forms of computer hacking, and online harass-
ment within the same analyses of college students.
Deterrence and Cybercrime
Deterrence Theory
The Classical School of criminology evolved out of the ideas and arguments promoted
during the Enlightenment era (Paternoster, 1987). Scholars such as Jeremy Bentham
and Cesare Beccaria viewed humans as being hedonistic, rational, and wielding free
will (Beccaria, 1764/1963; Bentham, 1789/1973). The commission of any behavior

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