Criminals Using High-Tech Methods For Old-Style Crimes

Organised crime rings that employ people with violent criminal records are increasingly trading their automatic weapons for automatic software tools that enable them to conduct a wide array of white-collar crimes such as identity theft and fraud.

As many as 700,000 people fall victim to identity theft and other forms of Internet fraud every year, but vast differences among the methods and perpetrators of such crimes can make investigating them difficult, said James Doyle, president of Madison, Connecticut-based Internet Crimes. Doyle, a co-founder of the New York Police Department's Computer Investigation and Technology Unit, spoke at the Cybercrime 2003 conference here this week.

Complaints can range from aggravated harassment, criminal impersonation and falsifying business records to forgery and credit card "skimming" by retail industry insiders such as clerks and security guards, said Doyle.

During his more than 20 years with the NYPD, Doyle said he investigated many cases where criminals were quick to try out new technologies to commit old crimes — what he called "old wine in new bottles."

In one case, security guards at New York's Macy's department store were stopping customers as they exited the store and stealing their credit card numbers off of their receipts. In another case, clerks at the Bloomingdales connected credit card scanners to handheld devices, allowing them to surreptitiously swipe the cards and collect thousands of credit card numbers, said Doyle.

Although cases that simply involve several people working together are not considered organised crime, traditional organised crime groups are beginning to mix violent tactics with high-tech scams, said Marjie Britz, a professor of criminal justice at The Citadel.

In particular, they often target the warehouse and shipping operations of high-tech companies. A California-based outfit calling itself the "South American Group" recently switched from shoplifting to high-tech cargo heists, Britz said. Cargo theft is not uncommon, she noted, and can sometimes be assisted by truck drivers who simply walk away from their vehicles and then report being hijacked.

Organised criminals have also become more "opportunistic" when it comes to recruiting hacking talent, said Britz, adding that high-tech experts are sometimes threatened with death if they refuse to help out with illegal computer hacking exploits. "Over time, the organisation overwhelms them and they stay involved for a very long time," Britz said.

She pointed to one case in Italy involving a high-tech heist targeting the Bank of Sicily. Criminals hacked into the bank's network and attempted to transfer US$1 billion to overseas bank accounts that had been set up in the names of bogus companies. That plot, however, was foiled.

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