Free, easy-to-use hacking tools help many young people slip into a life of cyber-crime, according to a report.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) has detailed the “pathways” taken by people who become criminals.
Many started by getting involved with game-cheat websites or forums that talked about ways to change or “mod” games, its report said.
Mentors, role models and positive opportunities could deter people from committing cyber-crime, the NCA added.
The report is based on a small number of interviews with people arrested or cautioned for carrying out computer-based crimes as well as analyses of academic studies of offenders.
It also draws on information resulting from many more “cease and desist” visits to people the NCA identified as being on the periphery of malicious hacking.
Many of the people interviewed and charged were teenagers “unlikely” to be involved in theft, fraud, sex or harassment crimes.
The average age of those interviewed and arrested was 17, far lower than for those the NCA picks up for drugs offences (37) or financial crime (39).
By Angus Crawford, BBC News correspondent
At the heart of the NCA’s report is a simple but worrying conclusion: the internet is creating a new kind of criminal.
Young people who in the real world wouldn’t dream of committing a crime are, in their online world, stealing other people’s data, vandalising websites, taking down servers. Breaking the law, causing real damage to real victims.
It’s a world where the line between right and wrong can seem blurred. After all if you can win a computer game by launching a cyber attack on an opponent, it may seem like a short step to doing the same to a school, company or government agency you don’t like.
This world can seem very seductive. Where you can make “friends” quickly and easily and you are praised for your skills, rather than being criticised for being a “nerd”. But it is also a place where the vulnerable or naive can become criminals without quite realising what they are doing.
The bad news is that suspects are getting younger. Seventeen is the average age, according to the National Cyber Crime Unit, but some are as young as 12.
The good news, though, is that they don’t seem to be motivated primarily by money, which means early intervention can be very successful.
Factors defining the pathway leading to cyber-crime included:
low barriers to entry thanks to the wide availability of easy-to-use hacking tools
easy access to illegal programs
a low risk of being caught
a perception that hacking was a victimless crime
These factors conspired to create “an environment in which more young people are becoming involved in cyber-crime”, the NCA said.
This brought a significant risk with it, because it had “brought the ability to cause significant harm within reach of the young and relatively unskilled cyber-criminals”.
In contrast to older criminals, few of those in the report sought to make money directly from hacking.
Instead, it found, many did it because they liked overcoming programming problems, bolstering their skill with web and networking technologies.
“I was driven by my curiosity, I wanted to understand the best modifications and cheats,” said one offender picked up for running “booter” sites that aggrieved gamers can use to kick rivals off servers.
Others got involved because they wanted to prove themselves to their peers – a fact that underscored the “key” social aspect of cyber-crime.
“Offenders thrive on their online relationships,” said the NCA.
This social aspect could also help provide a way out of cyber-crime by giving offenders examples of positive ways to use their skills.
Interventions by ex-offenders, computer professionals or police could also help divert younger people, it said.