Secret Service cracks down on cybercrime

Recent busts are only a drop in the bucket when it comes to phishing and fraud

Last week, I spoke with Brian Nagel, assistant director of the Secret Service’s Office of Investigations. The Secret Service is famous as the agency that provides bodyguards to the president -- at one time Nagel served in the Presidential Protective Division -- but both he and the agency do far more than that nowadays.

Along with the FBI, the Secret Service shares responsibility for investigating identity theft and computer fraud. The scary news from Nagel is that these crimes are no longer the work of individuals. Rather, criminals are organizing, hoping to leverage one another’s capabilities in order to make more money.

These organizations aren’t the crime families we know from movies and books, however. They’re online communities.

While there are many ongoing investigations, one that Nagel was able to talk about was Operation Firewall, in which the Secret Service infiltrated and gained access to the Web site

The ShadowCrew Web site was an online shopping bazaar for criminals. Participants from all over the world would log in to buy and sell credit card numbers and identity documents. For example, a man in Bulgaria looking for falsified documents was directed to a forger in Northern California. The site was also used for recruiting hackers and trading information on business sites with security holes.

The Secret Service found the ShadowCrew through an ordinary Google search using terms referring to stolen credit card numbers, and the agents gained the confidence of ShadowCrew’s Web site administrator “through standard undercover methods,” according to Nagel.

Because the goal of Operation Firewall is to prevent theft, the Secret Service didn’t wait very long before shutting ShadowCrew down. Secret Service forensic agents, coordinating with foreign law enforcement agencies in six countries, targeted 30 top criminals interacting on the site and caught 90 percent of them in the first 40 minutes of their search. By the next morning they had the rest.

In total, there were about 4,000 criminals participating on the ShadowCrew site, Nagel says, adding that had the ShadowCrew continued operating, the estimated value of the thefts could have gone to $1 billion.

Working alongside the Secret Service and FBI with its own staff of investigators is the Business Software Alliance (BSA), an organization whose members include all the major ISVs, as well as hardware guys such as Dell, IBM, and Intel. BSA investigators funnel leads to law enforcement on software piracy, illegal spamming, and phishing attacks.

Robert Holleyman, president and CEO of BSA, pointed to a study his organization conducted with the Information Systems Security Association, which found that the top challenges in deploying security systems are budget, staffing, and employee awareness.

The Secret Service’s Nagel warns that credit card numbers are becoming more readily available, as spoofing sites become more polished and authentic in both look and feel. He says that Operation Firewall has targeted many more people but that it may take as long as a decade to complete the operation.

Sad as it is to say, with security holes getting bigger and not smaller, my guess is that we will soon enter an era in which business desktops are tightly locked down and even personal e-mails are a thing of the past.