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Sheriff teams up with FBI on cybercrime

Date: March 11, 2005
Source: Detnews
By: Edward L. Cardenas

CLINTON TOWNSHIP -- Macomb County authorities are joining forces with the FBI in a move they say will allow them to prosecute more cases in the ever-growing field of computer crime.

The Sheriff's Department's cybercrime unit, known as the Macomb Area Computer Enforcement Team, moved two weeks ago from its location at the Chesterfield Township Police Department to the FBI's local offices in Clinton Township.

With more space to spread out and the FBI's additional resources, the unit -- which has seen its caseload increase nearly tenfold in some areas since it was founded four years ago -- expects to step up efforts to seek out Internet sexual predators, identify thieves and software pirates.

The move comes as good news to Pat Little, 69, a member of the Sterling Heights Computer club, where computer safety is an important issue.

"On the surface, that would be a good thing for people who use the computer," Little said. "But it is a two-edged sword ... there are people who would be concerned about privacy. It is a topic that is quite frequently brought up."

The consolidation comes as computer-related crime is on the rise both nationally and locally. Macomb authorities have been called in to assist federal authorities in the past, so it made sense to come together in the same office, officials say.

"Macomb County is ever-growing and more technical," said Ron Loch, supervisor of the Detroit FBI's cybercrime unit. He noted that the county is home to Selfridge Air National Guard Base, TACOM -- which designs and procures Army combat vehicles -- and various automotive facilities. With the consolidated computer unit, "we gain an intelligence base as well."

The FBI spent $200,000 to renovate the Clinton Township office to prepare for the consolidation with Macomb's unit. The 1,100-square-foot workspace is equipped with some of the latest technology available to fight computer crime.

The agencies have worked together on a variety of cases, from fraud in online auction houses to the theft of millions of dollars worth of trade secrets from two Metro Detroit auto suppliers that were sold to a Chinese manufacturer.

The FBI estimates there are 100,000 computer viruses on the Internet, and copyright and trademark theft costs $25 billion. It has become such a concern that computer crimes only rank behind stopping terrorism and counterintelligence as FBI priorities.

Macomb's computer crimes unit says its fastest-growing type of complaint involves online sellers intentionally defrauding customers and fake overseas investment offers. The unit saw a jump in those crimes from 40 complaints in 2001 to 304 in 2004.

"We are seeing an increased demand from local agencies and the public," said Sheriff Mark Hackel, who worked with the FBI to establish the new offices. "There is constant influx of new technology and new training. Tying in with another agency helps defray the cost."

Another duty of the unit also is seeking out individuals who use the Internet to proposition children for sex. Undercover officers portray themselves as children and wait until there is a proposition. A meeting location is chosen, and deputies arrest the individual.

Officers also have busted individuals selling stolen auto parts online, seized pirated software sold at a local trade center and combed through a hard drive to find a runaway.

As its workload grew, the Macomb unit soon found its makeshift offices in Chesterfield weren't big enough.

"The square footage is about the same, but (the old space) was not set up for a computer crime unit," said Detective Scott Blackwell of the Chesterfield Police Department, who is working with the unit.

The technology in the combined Clinton Township office includes devices that can make an exact copy of a computer's hard drive, allowing investigators to search files without altering the original computer. It also includes an evidence room where items ranging from disks to computer towers are stored in a more organized way.

"We want to be able to crunch the data in a quick fashion," said Detective Sgt. Darren Bondy, who heads up the Macomb unit. (The bureau) will give us direction when we get stuck."

The partnership between the FBI and Macomb County is unique in Michigan, officials say. In addition to having the federal government underwriting the renovations and new equipment, the officers from Macomb are using the space rent-free.

"This is a relatively new and growing venture for the FBI," said Daniel Roberts, special agent in charge of the Detroit FBI office. "We are the only game in town."

You can reach Edward L. Cardenas at (586) 468-0529 or ecardenas@detnews.com.


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