Hackers fiercer than ever, FBI says

As head of the ever-expanding FBI computer intrusion squad, Trent Teyema has heard all the stereotypes of who hackers are, but he knows that people who call themselves that today are a long way from their counterparts of even just a few years ago.

A hacker used to be a 12-year-old in the basement eating candy and drinking cola, Teyema said. “That’s not the case anymore.”

Teyema, who was speaking Wednesday at a conference of the Computer Security Institute in Washington, D.C., said hackers today are often armed, operating in other countries, and capable of malicious acts far beyond identity theft and fraud.

A different hacker

As examples, Teyema cited three cases in which the FBI has searched around the world to apprehend criminals who were far more dangerous than the stereotypical teenage geek.

In one case, a man cost phone companies hundreds of thousands of dollars by using phone bridges, opening and closing different phone lines, and taking advantage of shoddy infrastructure in telephone company communication procedures to make and receive calls around the world.

When investigators finally caught up to him, he was armed and dangerous. After a short negotiation, the investigators arrested him.

Another case involved an extortion attempt by a man who had secured access to the computer network operating on the South Pole. Authorities ended up tracing the origin of the messages to an Internet cafe in Romania, which Teyema said shows the importance of international cooperation among law enforcement officials.

“We’ve had great success [catching hackers] abroad,” said Teyema. He said it is important to dispel the myth that suspects in U.S. security breaches wouldn’t be arrested if they are in foreign countries. “Other countries have become more sophisticated” in their ability to track down hackers, he added.

Unexpected activities

Antiterror legislation passed recently in Italy could reportedly curb the work of hackers as well, Teyema noted. The legislation is designed to give the government increased surveillance of Internet activity.

Teyema recalled an incident that revealed just how important stopping cybercrime can be. He told of a man who was sabotaging patent research companies by sending out explicit e-mail messages to clients, purportedly from the company’s account.

Authorities followed the man for months before being led to his apartment, where they were surprised to find illegal firecrackers, hand grenades, and chemicals that Teyema said could be used to make weapons of mass destruction.

“The sentence he was facing for the firecrackers alone was more” than for the fraudulent e-mail, Teyema said.

— Crouch writes for the Medill News Service.

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