ALTOM: High-tech crime sometimes does pay

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Tim Altom

I’ve wondered why people continue to say crime doesn’t pay. It often pays spectacularly well, and with the help of modern technologies it can be both lucrative and relatively safe, because it takes a while before the authorities catch on. It’s far harder to anticipate the thievery, because most of the technology serves business purposes, too.

Churches in England, for example, have reported having the lead from their roofs stripped off and sold by thieves using Google Earth to find the material. Reuters (www.reuters.com) ran a story in December stating that 8,000 churches had filed insurance claims for theft of lead, for a dollar value of $37 million. Sometimes the cheeky crooks returned and stole the replaced lead, too. Before you start writing to your congressperson about banning Google Earth, you should know that legitimate roofing companies also use the very same capability to bid on jobs.

I use Google’s Street View to plan visits to parts of town I haven’t driven in before, and criminals can do the same thing. They don’t have to drive to a location to “case” it, as they used to. Now they can sit at home and scan neighborhoods doing nothing riskier than clicking the mouse. I once read an account of a failed date attempt in which the young would-be swain was moved to show how easily he might have exacted revenge for what he saw as an unnecessarily harsh rebuff.

He memorized her license plate number, then looked it up online, which many states permit. That gave him her name. He quickly found her address and phone number from White Pages (www.whitepages.com). A Google search quickly showed him her Facebook page, her involvement in academics, and even the name of her dog. Within minutes, he was deep into her life, and could have created havoc had he chosen to do so. His point was that she was oblivious to it all, and had made no attempt to clean up any of it.

The most notorious and frequently hilarious attempt at high-tech knavery is the Nigerian e-mail scam (also known as a “419 scam”) in which an unknown person sends you a poorly worded e-mail, claiming to be a rich Nigerian wanting to get money out of the country. He asks you to receive and hold it for him. But wait, you have to give him upfront cash to help the deal go through.

It would be just another bit of Internet lore if not for the fact that it actually continues to work. The Federal Crimes Division of the Secret Service still gets complaints from victims. Several intended victims have fought back. You can see some of their stories on sites like www.419eater.com.

Technology crime is now an international multibillion-dollar organized industry. Hacking tools are built in one country, then sold to another, to be used to steal money from yet others. China has been the source of much of today’s hackery, but that doesn’t mean the Chinese are doing it. It’s relatively easy for hackers to gain control of Chinese machines and use them to attack those in other countries.

While hackers continue to rampage throughout the world, credit cards and ATMs are rapidly becoming the more lucrative targets. Thieves have rigged ATMs in lots of ways to make a buck from them. They’ve installed cameras to catch both your user ID and your password. They’ve done “shoulder surfing” to do the same thing from a distance. The savvier ones have placed a faux ATM interface over the real ATM’s screen to scan your card and convince you the ATM is broken.

Even more ambitious crooks have put entire ATMs in public places where they actually give out cash and give every indication of being real, all the while stealing card numbers and passwords. The theft of card data is generally known as “skimming.” It doesn’t take an ATM to do it, though. Many credit card thieves have been caught secretly using skimmers in retail stores and restaurants. Thieves can buy huge lists of these numbers from dealers all over the world.

The criminality goes everywhere. In Britain, two men were arrested for sending the answers to immigration questions to test-takers in a nearby building. In the United States, an armored-car robber arranged ahead of time for some novel camouflage. He posted a notice on Craigslist saying he had work for anyone who would show up at a given location wearing specific construction gear. After the heist, he mingled with the crowd until he could slip away unnoticed.

So, does crime pay? It can, but the chances of getting caught are getting bigger, too. The Craigslist mastermind was eventually arrested using DNA evidence. It’s a risky world out there.•


Altom is a consultant specializing in pairing businesses with appropriate technology. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.


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