Setup improves cybercrime unit's efficiency
New home, partnership make targeting criminals easier
By Jonathan Humphrey
Date: July 19, 2003
VASSALBORO — They are crimes that take place in cyberspace, from computer fraud to soliciting children for sex in Internet chat rooms, and for years Maine law enforcement agencies were ill-equipped to deal with them.
But since 2000, the Maine Computer Crimes Task Force has worked to reverse that, and on Friday, the small agency celebrated its expansion into both a new headquarters and a new partnership aimed at reducing white collar crimes.
The unit, which began operations in old jail cells at the Lewiston Police Department, is now headquartered at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, while the Lewiston site now functions as a satellite office.
The list of high-profile cases cracked by the organization is growing, and the task force has become a source of pride for Maine, according to Attorney General Stephen Rowe, who spoke at an open house for the unit.
"It was a visionary group from the beginning, and this has now become a model for the rest of the nation," Rowe said. "This only works because it's a partnership, everybody working for the same goal. It's about machines and all that, but at the core, it's about people."
The event Friday doubled as an opportunity to announce a new partnership between the task force and the National White Collar Crimes Center.
The partnership will allow Maine complaints of Internet fraud and other crimes to be funneled directly from the task force to the center's headquarters in West Virginia.
There, complaints can be electronically compared to others from around the globe, analyzed, and zapped back to the appropriate agencies for prosecution, according to Mark Gage, deputy director of the crimes center.
"It is the first time in the nation that we have done this," Gage said. "Eighty percent of the cases that are developed this way are worked by state and local law enforcement."
The new arrangement is fast and efficient, and should lead to better prosecution rates, according to Michael Webber, an investigator with the AG's office.
"Before, when someone filed a complaint, it only got to us as quickly as we checked our e-mail," Webber said.
While the open house Friday was a chance to celebrate, many attending talked about how the incidence of computer-related crime is rising steadily as computers proliferate and criminals figure out new ways to use them.
The unit has only a handful of full-time and part-time members to fight this crime wave, and could easily employ many more, according to Sgt. Glenn Lang of the Maine State Police, the unit's supervisor.
"We are the only computer forensic unit within the state, and we provide all the technical support for law enforcement in the state," Lang said. "The phone rings off the hook all day."
Lewiston Police Chief William Welch, whose department led the effort to create the unit back in 1999, said its effectiveness far exceeds its size, thanks to a core of skilled, motivated officers.
"With the expertise that they have, I'm sure that they could work for private industry and make five times as much, but their dedication is to law enforcement and the people of Maine," Welch said.
The task force focuses much of its energy on tracking down Internet predators and sex offenders, and examining their hard drives for evidence of child exploitation and pornography.
That work has yielded some shocking arrests, including a case in which a Maine father was sentenced to 18 months in prison after advertising on the Internet for someone to kidnap and rape his 12-year-old daughter, and then share pictures of the assault with him.
Though advancing technology provides the tools the unit needs to do its work, increasing sophistication of computer systems also makes that work more difficult, according to Tom Bureau, a forensic specialist on the force.
The problem is storage space^; as computer storage capacities increase, the job of examining the contents of a hard drive — which the unit copies onto a single file before probing — grows too, Bureau said.
"Try opening a file that's 80 gigabytes," Bureau said.
The unit operates on a thin budget, with staff provided by the Maine State Police, the Lewiston Police Department, the Attorney General's office, and the Brunswick Police Department.
It received funding from the state in 2001, and is also supported by private agencies dedicated to the prevention of child-related crime.
In addition to its forensic work, the task force trains police officers in computer-related investigations and educates the public about the threats posed by cybercrime.
"Police are starting to really realize the value of computers and the Internet, as are criminals," Lang said. "I would guess it is the fastest growing form of crime in Maine."
Original article: http://www.centralmaine.com/news/stories/030719computer.shtml
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