In testimony before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security yesterday, FBI’s Assistant Director Gordon M. Snow spoke about how threats in cyberspace–from social-engineering scams to data mining–are pervasive dangers threatening national security and Americans in their everyday lives.
Snow highlighted how modern-day con artists operate on the Internet, moving their scams to virtual worlds to conduct classic investment-fraud schemes or steal identities and other personally identifiable information. Social-networking sites, in particular, are breeding grounds for cyber criminals who cloaked by the anonymity of the Internet misrepresent themselves to lure unsuspecting victims into handing over bank account information and other details.
In addition to identity-theft crimes, child predators often use social-networking sites to find and communicate with future victims and other pedophiles, Snow said. Last year, one publicized case involved an individual who attempted to extort nude pictures of teenage girls after he gained control of their email and social-networking accounts. That particular investigation led to an 18-year federal sentence for the offender, “reflecting that these crimes are serious and will not be tolerated,” Snow said.
In addition to preying on minors online, cyber crooks have found a way to steal money from Internet users. Snow detailed a recent scheme that involves a scammer getting access to an unsuspecting user’s email account or social-networking site. The fraudster, pretending to be the account holder, sends messages to the user’s friends, saying he has been robbed of his credit cards, passport, money, and cellphone, and needs money immediately. Without realizing the message is from a criminal, the friends wire money to an overseas account without validating the claim.
Speaking of how cyber fraudsters use data mining on social-networking sites to extract sensitive information about their victims, Snow noted how this can be done either on a large or a small scale. In a large-scale data-mining scheme, a cyber criminal may send out a “getting to know you quiz” to social-networking site users. While the answers to these questions are seemingly innocent, they often mimic the same questions asked by financial institutions or email account providers when an individual has forgotten his or her password. Thus, an email address and the answers to the quiz questions can provide the cyber criminal with enough information to intrude victims’ bank or email account.
With any kind of cyber crime, the impact on individuals and commerce can be substantial, with consequences ranging from a inconvenience to financial ruin, Snow said.
“The potential for considerable profits is enticing to young criminals, and has resulted in the creation of a large underground economy known as the cyber underground,” he said. “The cyber underground is a pervasive market governed by rules and logic that closely mimic those of the legitimate business world, including a unique language, a set of expectations about its members’ conduct, and a system of stratification based on knowledge and skill, activities, and reputation.”
Snow also detailed efforts by the FBI to combat cyber crime, including the bureau’s four-fold cyber crime mission: to stop those behind the most serious computer intrusions and the spread of malicious code; to identify and thwart online sexual predators; to counteract operations targeting U.S. intellectual property; and to dismantle national and transnational organized criminal enterprises engaging in Internet fraud.
Acknowledging the bureau cannot combat this threat alone, Snow spoke of partnerships with federal, state, local and international law-enforcement agencies, as well as with the private sector and academia. At the federal level, the FBI leads the National Cyber Investigative Joint Task Force as a multiagency national focal point for coordinating, integrating, and sharing information related to cyber-threat investigations. The FBI also partners with not-for-profit organizations, Snow said.
“Working closely with others, sharing information, and leveraging all available resources and expertise, the FBI and its partners have made significant strides in combating cyber crime,” he said. “Clearly, there is more work to be done, but through a coordinated approach we have become more nimble and responsive in our efforts to bring justice to the most egregious offenders.”