Underpaid, understaffed, and outgunned by computer criminals who have more sophisticated equipment, American law enforcement is beginning to fight back against the burgeoning underworld of cybercrime.
From Dallas to Phoenix to Los Angeles, local police departments are setting up special units aimed at curbing crime over the Internet - everything from kiddie porn to trade-secret hackers to e-mail fraud.
The main reason: Electronic crime is now estimated to be more than a $10-billion-per-year business. At the same time, more and more computer crimes are being reported directly to local cops rather than specialized corporate or bank security officials.
Thus departments are trying to combine years of beat crime-fighting experience with knowledge of hard drives and hyperlinks. The result is the emergence of a new breed of cybercop who is far different from the lone rangers like Sgt. Joe Friday or Lieutenant Columbo. Call it the rise of the nerd cop.
These officers are more likely to work in teams, piecing together crimes with other officers across state and national boundaries. Their desks, as evidenced by police barracks in these two Western cities on the cutting edge of the trend, are not stacked with mug shots and musty suspect files. Instead, they're piled high with disassembled computers, floppy disks, and CD-ROM drives.
"The realization has finally come that cybercrime is something that is going to go way beyond corporate America and law enforcement is going to have to deal with it," says Col. Michael Robinson, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
The transition to the new world of crime fighting has been slow, analysts say, in part because the numbers and sophistication of new technology users is outstripping the supply of cops needed to keep watch. Every day, 50,000 new Internet users join the 100 million already existing, and perpetrators may attempt their crimes from across the street or across the globe.
Through the US Department of Justice, state police agencies, and other regional collaborations, training is being offered for beat cops to fine-tune the computer know-how they have. But a shortage of trainers persists.
"With the growth of the Internet and the lowering costs of supercomputers, the technology of crime has been advancing at the speed of light while the ability of police to combat it has been advancing at the speed of government," says Allan Brill, managing director of Kroll Associates, which consults on computer security and Internet fraud.
Mr. Brill estimates the number of law-enforcement agencies that have adequate computer crime units to be 20 to 25 percent, but growing. "Now there is a maturing of the whole field [of cybercrime] with the realization that those who fight it can't just slough it off to a bunch of techies," he says. "The potential of serious consequences is too high."
Following years of grass-roots organizing, the US Justice Department last year formed the National Cybercrime Training Partnership, which coordinates efforts for state, local, and federal enforcement agencies. They are joined by state units such as Northern California's Sacramento Valley high-tech unit.
"The key buzzwords for what we are trying to do are collaboration and coordination," says Wayne Williams, senior counsel for the US Department of Justice. The NCTP initiative includes a state-of-the-art training facility in Fairmont, W. Va., mobile training units, videotapes, and online learning. Courses include how to obtain and preserve computer evidence. Advanced work includes networking and encryption.
At the Los Angeles Police Department, the computer crime unit currently has three members handling about 120 cases a year. All are former cops. In Phoenix, the State Department of Public Services has a four-man computer team, handling about 300 cases a year. The officers average about 20 years police work. Both teams handle cases for other agencies and departments.
"People here are beginning to discover it's OK to be a nerd in this business," says Bob Hopper, head of the Phoenix unit. "You get a cop on the street who doesn't even know how to turn a computer on, and we put some nerd on it who gives him back the evidence to convict a guy. All of a sudden you're a great guy."
Mr. Hopper's unit just helped in the state's first conviction of a cyberstalker. Randy Parsons of Phoenix had been charged with taking the identity of his ex-girlfriend and posting a personals ad, which included the victim's photograph, on the Internet. Police said Parsons then posed as the victim in e-mail messages containing graphic descriptions of her supposed sexual preferences. As a result, the victim received phone from men wanting to meet her.
Other crimes range from simple cell phone fraud - using another's numbers to make calls - to stealing vital information like trade secrets. If the bad news is that computers are far ranging in the damage they can cause, they are also sources of evidence. "Most criminals think they have deleted all the indictable material," says Det. Terry Willis, who heads the LAPD unit. "What we do is find where it still exists on the computer."
Combatting cybercrime, though, requires is an expensive endeavor. "No single agency can deal with the cost of equipment and expertise needed to deal with this issue," says Fred Cotton, director of training. "We are up against Microsoft and other large companies creating operating systems that can write code faster than we can deal with criminals."
Although the NCTP and others are trying to establish guidelines for police training, many programs are uneven. "It's a mixed bag right now because there is clearly not enough supply to meet the demand," says IACP's Robinson. "They are moving in the right direction, but are not their yet."
Better training is likely to follow more spending on it. "Our whole society has to realize that we are moving into a whole new area of crime," says Scott Charney, a consultant on cybercrime for PriceWaterhouseCoopers.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society