Undercover In The Computer Underworld

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 Going Undercover In The Computer Underworld      January 26, 1993
 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 by Ralph Blumenthal (The New York Times)(Page B1)

He patrols the back alleys of cyberspace at the edge of the electronic
frontier.  Traveling on beams of electrons, he is invisible, formless --
the ultimate undercover agent.

He's "Phrakr Trakr" of the Hi-Tech Crime Network.  But don't look for him
in comic books or the video store.  He's real.

His beat takes in the thousands of computer bulletin boards where anyone
with a computer, a modem and a phone can dial up and exchange
information, or even start a new bulletin board.  Usually, the subject is
as innocuous as a computer game program, a recipe or pet grooming.  But
increasingly, the authorities say, the bulletin boards have become
underground marketplaces for stolen telephone access codes and credit
card numbers, along with child pornography and other contraband.  Now,
law-enforcement agencies have stepped up counterattacks, including
computer-based stings.

That's the passion of Phrakr Trakr, (pronounced FRACK-er TRACK-er), an
organized-crime investigator, founder of a network of police computer
buffs that now spans 28 states, and self-proclaimed scourge of "hackers"
who break into computer networks, "phreakers" who steal telephone
services, and "phrackers," who are a combination of both.

In his newsletter called "FBI" ("Find 'em, Bust 'em, Incarcerate 'em"),
he warned:

"Every move you make, Every breath you take, We'll be watching you."

Brazenly, he uploaded the taunt onto bulletin boards in June in an
effort, as he wrote, to sow "anarchy, chaos, mistrust and fear" in the
"phracker community."

Boyish, with closely cropped hair and a penchant for suspenders and
rakish double-breasted suits, the 36-year-old investigator works in the
organized crime, racketeering and narcotics bureau of a large law-
enforcement agency in the East.

Like other undercover agents whose success and safety hinge on an ability
to blend in with their targets even though they chafe at the anonymity of
their work, he was eager to draw attention to his operations, provided
his identity was withheld.


An Electronic Wall

While infiltrating electronic bulletin boards and investigating computer
crime is part of his job, he said, the High-Tech Crime Network that he
organized last year to educate other officers around the country is his
own project, for which he has spent some $4,000 of his own money on
computer equipment and telephone bills.

Though his investigations have yet to yield arrests, he said he is
studying nine boards and building cases with officers in three other
states.

"It takes time," he said.  "You don't just buy one thing and arrest them.
They'd know you were a cop.  You buy things over time and make several
arrests."  While the Secret Service and the Federal Bureau of
Investigation are also conducting investigations, he said, local law
enforcement also has jurisdiction.

Others corroborated his account.  His information jibes, furthermore,
with well-documented efforts by law-enforcement agencies nationwide to
penetrate the perhaps 10 percent of the nation's estimated 30,000
electronic bulletin boards where computer criminals traffic in stolen
information, child pornography, poison recipes and bomb-making
instructions.


Computer-Literate Criminals

"I want to make more cops aware of high-tech crime," he said as he typed
at a home computer recently reading his electronic mail from other
officers and leaving messages on bulletin boards that offered stolen
credit card numbers and telephone calling codes.  These were not pranks
of teen-age computer whizzes, he said, "This is an organized criminal
activity."

"The victims are everybody," he said.  "We all end up paying for it."

Richard Petillo, manager of corporate security for AT&T, said such fraud
now costs the industry, and thereby customers, an estimated $2 billion a
year and continues to grow.  "It's an epidemic, let's face it," he said.
"Criminals are constantly working at ways to get around our controls.  We
liken it to a chess game."

Bruce Sterling, a chronicler of the computer wars and author of "The
Hacker Crackdown" (Bantam, 1992), concluded that while mischievous
intrusions into computer networks were declining, "electronic fraud,
especially telecommunications crime, is growing by leaps and bounds."
This despite a crackdown by several agencies around the nation in 1990
that resulted in the seizure of some 40 computers and 23,000 floppy
disks.


Threat to Phone Companies

To telecommunications giants like AT&T, MCI and Sprint, the primary fraud
is theft of long-distance calling-card numbers.  But they have the
technology to detect sudden changes in customer calling patterns and can
invalidate a card within hours.  More difficult to detect are break-ins
to a company's phone system -- called a private branch exchange, or PBX.
These thefts can afford free outside calling at the company's expense and
can escape notice until the bill arrives.  Among recent victims was the
financially struggling New York Post, which suffered a $40,000 loss.

Toward the end of a month, as the likelihood of their detection rises,
"phreakers" often post PBX access codes on electronic bulletin boards,
allowing wider exploitation and muddying the trail for investigators.
The techniques for such electronic break-ins are widely disseminated on
the bulletin boards.

In addition, many experts say, the more secretive boards have become
forums for pedophiles and other sexual predators who also inhabit
cyberspace, that unfixable geography where disembodied strangers known
only by their pseudonyms, or "handles," chat by computer and phone lines.
Pornography, even moving pictures from overseas, are stored as files that
can be downloaded by minors into home computers at will.

Chief Alfred O. Olsen of the Warwick Township Police Department in
Lititz, Pennsylvania, who has worked with the police high-tech crime
group and its founder, said in a recent report that he became aware of
the nefarious uses of some of the bulletin boards as a result of a rape
case in which the suspect met victims through a computer bulletin board.

To get onto a bulletin board, a computer user needs only a communications
program like Crosstalk and a modem that will send and receive signals
over a phone line.  Each board has its own phone number and is usually
maintained by its originator, a systems operator who sets the rules for
access and coordinates the message traffic.  Each board commonly offers
the phone numbers of many other boards, as well as programs for starting
yet other boards. But so-called underground boards offering illicit
services require secret passwords, usually granted only to those who
attend face-to-face meetings intended to weed out the police.


The Limits of Expression

Computer civil-libertarians like the Electronic Frontier Foundation
counter that the police typically have difficulty differentiating between
criminal schemes and constitutionally protected free speech.

But Phrakr Trakr said he understood the distinction.  "If you want to
write how to kill your parents, that's OK," he said, citing a bulletin
board "phile" on how to dispose of a murdered parent's body.  "But
selling credit cards is something else."

Learning the idioms was the first step in infiltrating a bulletin board
system, he said.  He used a software program on an IBM clone and a
telephone modem to log onto one of several clandestine boards; he did
this by using false identification and access passwords he had acquired
by satisfying a series of questions testing his authenticity.

He was scanning the messages when the systems operator who policed the
board broke in: "What's up need any help?"

"Yo dude," he typed out, "looking fer ATT's got any?"

The operator provided the handle, or nickname, of someone who might have
credit-card calling numbers.

Phrakr Trakr left a message for him and addressed the operator. "Thanks
for the codez," he typed.

If future transactions proved rewarding, he said, he would try to lure
the supplier to a face-to-face meeting where he could be arrested by
local authorities on other charges, safeguarding the confidentiality of
the undercover exchange.


A Hacker's Attitude

He rummaged through other boards, finding files on how to turn household
chemicals into deadly poisons, how to build an "Assassin Box" to send a
supposedly lethal power surge through a telephone line, and how to use a
tone dialer to make free calls from certain coin telephones.

Then it was time to log onto his own bulletin board -- protected by his
own high-security measures -- to check the mail from fellow members of
the Hi-Tech Crime Network.

Tim left a message saying he had found that a bulletin board he was
investigating concealed an even more interesting underground board. "I'm
in the process of getting elite access now," he wrote.  "Hope it works."

But, Tim wanted to know, what if he was asked to provide card numbers in
return?

"Always put them on the defensive," counseled Phrakr Trakr.  "Let them
know you're interested but come across as being cautious. They will
understand that.  Upload some of the files you got from this board and
that should give you some credibility.  Have an attitude.  Most
hackers/phreakers do."


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