Undercover In The Computer Underworld
From Higher Intellect Wiki
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."
Share your opinion