WOODENSBURG, Md. – Twenty-six state investigators peered intently at their laptops on a recent weekday, searching for clues in the murder of a woman.
The victim’s husband had returned home from a meeting to find his wife dead and his home ransacked. The investigators’ had one clue, a computer found at the murder scene, and a one-hour deadline to retrieve evidence from the hard drive.
It wasn’t going to be easy. It wasn’t meant to be.
The murder investigation was a test for the investigators, who had spent the week attending the National White Collar Crime Center’s Cybercop 101 class. The mock murder gave them a chance to apply what they had learned in the eight-hour classes.
“The goal is for them to get experience gathering evidence,” said Ben Lewis, an instructor. “It’s more of an idea of knowing what not to do and what to do.”
Computers crime is a hot topic nationwide. The crimes range from child pornography on the Internet to stealing records for fraud. Medicaid and Medicare, the government-run health programs, are some of the biggest victims of fraud that includes billing for fictitious patients, billing for services that weren’t performed and exaggerating ambulance distances.
Other crimes include the 1995 multi-million dollar calling card scam where a hacker tapped into telephone companies’ computer records, obtained calling card numbers and sold the numbers to other people.
In 1996, the FBI formed a unit to investigate computer fraud and abuse. Federal agencies have received computer training for several years, but state departments haven’t. That’s why the National White Collar Crime Center began offering the class for state officials last fall. The center is funded by the U.S. Justice Department.
“We see computer crimes in embezzlement, gambling operations…. It’s a whole range of things that we see,” said Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. “We have to make sure that when we have an arrest, we take the hardware and we don’t destroy the evidence.”
Curran’s office sent several criminal investigators from its consumer protection, environmental crimes, securities and insurance fraud divisions. State Police investigators also attended the seminar at Camp Fretterd, a National Guard training camp near Reisterstown.
“The whole course is geared toward the fact that this the generation we’re in,” said Terry Collins, a Medicaid investigator for the attorney general. “Computers are what we’re all bumping into. The more knowledge you have, the better off you’re going to be.”
In the class, instructors used computer-generated transparencies to teach everything from the basics of how a computer works to more complex tasks, such as breaking passwords. They also focused on cellular phone fraud, Internet scams, securities fraud, illegal online gambling and legal issues for search and seizure. Instructors introduced the various software specialized for law enforcement.
Each student had a laptop, equipped with two hard drives and a CD-ROM. Extension cords snaked around the room and computer screens flashed royal blue, black and navy as the investigators tapped on the keyboards.
During the mock murder test, some screens flashed to a mountain with a waterfall. The words “Option #70. Take a vacation here after I get the insurance money,” were scrawled in red. Other investigators found copies of letters to insurance companies.
“It’s excellent,” Collins said of the course. “It really goes into a lot of different areas. The nitty gritty about computer crime.”
Lewis and Raemarie J. Szymanski, another instructor, taught the investigators how to do a proper seizure when removing computer equipment during a raid. They emphasized simple things like taking an assortment of floppy discs and a laptop to copy information.
The course “taught you what to look for, things not to do,” said Debbie Luiza-Lee, a financial security investigator for the attorney general’s office, who has never participated in a raid.
What not to do is important. The investigators are working in a world of software bombs – which erase discs – computer passwords, and computers that can be operated by remote. It is a world where hitting one button can erase the disc, or handling the equipment roughly can break something.
Szymanski said networking is essential in computer crime investigation. No one person can know everything about computers. Some people are experts with Macintosh and others with IBM — competing and very different operating systems. Investigators need to know whom to call when they encounter a system they’re not familiar with.
Some investigators had little computer experience while others used the course to enhance their resumes for court testimony.
Lewis said computer crimes aren’t always high-tech scams. Often it’s average criminals, such as drug dealers, who keep their financial records on computers, just like legal businesses. “It’s still the same old crime. The bad guys are using computers just like the good guys,” he said. “We get hung up on that `high tech’ banner.” -30-