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September 2000

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Cybercrime: New Way to Commit Old Crimes

Recently, the Internet Fraud Complaint Center, a joint creation of the FBI, the DOJ, and the National White Collar Crime Center, reported it had received 1,000 complaints of fraud each week since opening in May. It is estimated that by the time the center becomes fully automated later this year, it will be receiving more than 1,000 complaints a day. And that's only the Internet fraud cases. If the statistics are any indication of the overall volume, cybercrime is growing and, in the opinion of some federal law-enforcement officers, soon may rival the number of immigration and drug cases now flooding the southwest border courts. Unlike those crimes, the caseload will be spread across the entire country.

"Now we're seeing the usual run of counterfeiters, credit card fraud, and websites selling things they don't own," said Dan Wieser, probation officer in the Middle District of Florida. "Five years from now most crimes will somehow be computer-related. Crooks go where the money is—and it's in computers."

By definition, cybercrime involves a computer, even though it often isn't tracked as computer crime. For example, an offender may cross state lines to meet a minor he first contacted on-line, or a sex offender may download child pornography, but the crimes they commit are numbered statistically in categories such as sexual offenses or child pornography. Just like the elusive definition of obscenity, however, you know cybercrime when you see it.

"Cybercrime offenders are committing old crimes in new ways, " said Lanny Newville, senior pretrial services officer in the Western District of Texas. "It's easy to do things that were difficult previously. Computer scanners and high-quality color printers make crimes like forgery and counterfeiting easy. The how-tos are available on the Internet, if you know where to look." And, criminals may now commit those crimes in the privacy of their own homes, on their own computers.

The FBI and other law enforcement agencies are bringing increased focus on cybercrime. The Internet Fraud Complaint Center was established to address the growing problem of fraud cases occurring over the Internet. The IFCC provides a vehicle for victims around the country to report incidents of fraud on-line. The FBI is dedicating substantial funds to pursue these and other cybercrimes. "Whether we want it or not," said Tim Cadigan in the Administrative Office Federal Correction and Supervision Division, "the caseload is coming."

That raises the question, how will probation and pretrial services officers in federal courts cope with cyber-criminals?

New Class of Offender Uses Computers

"I'm definitely not a cyber sleuth," said Larry Hawley, probation officer in the Central District of California. "The offenders we deal with are so far advanced in computers, and we aren't. What helps us is being computer literate and using computer experts as resources." Hawley also draws on the rapport he develops with his clients and 30 years as a probation officer.

Monica Hampton, a probation officer in the District of South Carolina, has a masters degree in computer resources and information management. The education gave her a greater interest in cybercrime. She believes it is imperative to keep up-to-date with technology to meet the changing needs of supervision.

"Cyber criminals have nothing but time on their hands," Hampton said. "They are constantly upgrading their tools and skills, so we need to know what they're doing and using in order to properly supervise them. The majority of computer crimes we see today are the same conventional crimes we've seen in the past. The common criminal has just realized that by using the computer, in the commission of their offense, it can facilitate the process." Hampton located software that allows her to monitor on-line activity anonymously. It is proving useful in the supervision of an offender who had his own on-line business. The software allowed her to visit his website and monitor activity between him and his customers without being traced. "I wanted to ensure that he was remaining honest in his dealings, and this seemed to be the perfect tool," she said.

Paul Collette, a probation officer in the Southern District of New York, investigates offenders who've used computers to, for example, commit credit card fraud or send child pornography. "It's a new class of offender," he said, "someone who uses the Internet to commit sophisticated crime. One offender was an art dealer. He'd meet his victims on a website, contact them through e-mail, and convince them to send him art on consignment. Then he'd just take the art. When he's on probation, we'll need to monitor him closely."

To monitor offenders who are allowed by the court to keep their computers, Collette and other officers use software that tracks everything the offender is doing on-line by recording screen shots. Officers in the Southern District of New York visit the offenders every few days, view and export the screen shots to a disk, and take the data back to the office to review. How does an officer monitor an offender 24 hours a day? It is a never-ending battle.

"There once was one computer in the house or at work," Collette says. "Now there's access to computers at copy stores, or the library, or at friends' houses where offenders can surf anonymously. The Internet can be accessed via devices that were virtually unheard of two years ago, like cell phones, game consoles, and Palm Pilots. It's not hopeless, but we have to do the good old-fashioned gum shoe work. We have to monitor visually, keep tabs on devices and e-mail accounts, and ask for passwords." In his off-time, Colette also visits hacker sites and reads everything to do with new software.

Collette recommends that officers obtain training at the National White Collar Crime Center in West Virginia, which has a one-week course on Internet investigation and computers. For the districts and their pretrial services and probation officers, it also may become a matter of locating additional and sometimes specialized training and resources.