Romania tackles rise in cyber-crime
Source: BBC NEWS
By Clark Boyd
Date: December 27, 2003
Internet crime could cost more than $200bn, say some experts. Most of it originates in the US but other like nations such as Romania are becoming hotbeds for online scamming, as technology correspondent Clark Boyd reports from Bucharest.
The Friday night scene in the bar at Bucharest's Polytechnic University is a lot like any other college bar scene. Some students knock back a few beers. Others enjoy a game of pool.
In another corner of the bar sit a dozen high-end desktop computers, complete with high-speed internet connections. This is where the real action or maybe the virtual action, is.
Students sit three-deep waiting to get on a machine. For less than a dollar an hour, they can check e-mail, chat online, and listen to music. Most of them, however, are playing violent video games.
Gaming aside, the youths who study computer science here are very good. In fact, Romania's a global powerhouse when it comes to computing and programming.
Pool of skills
It is a tradition that stretches back to the early days of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, according to Florin Talpes, who was a computer programmer during the Ceausescu years.
"Ceausescu had ambitions," said Mr Talpes, "maybe he dreamed that Romania could be a power. In fact, in the 70s, Ceausescu wanted to build a very modern Romania, very well connected to technology."
According to the computer programmer, Ceausescu succeeded.
"On the technical side, Romania has tens and tens of years of building these skills, so we have a huge human resource pool with good technical skills. So, the Romanians love the technical side, it's in our genes to work on the technical side."
Those skills have got Romanians noticed in Europe and the US. Many Romanian programmers have been lured away to work at software companies outside of their homeland.
Romania's stagnant economy has meant that those who stay behind find it hard to make an honest living in computers.
Economic hardship is causing some of those talented youths in Bucharest's net cafes to turn to hacking and other forms of internet crime, according to Andrew McLaughlin of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
"There's a significant number of very talented, very inventive hackers inside Romania who, you know, are good at scamming people elsewhere," he said.
"And it's a real problem for Romania. It doesn't want to become a haven for internet crime."
But Romania's reputation as a haven for internet crime is growing, thanks to a number of recent, high-profile cases.
In one instance, Romanians hacked into a server at the South Pole Research Center and stole sensitive information.
They then blackmailed the centre, threatening to share that research data with other countries if they did not get their money.
Romanians seem to be truly coming into their own as cyber-criminals in online auction scams, with the country ranking high in eBay's table of estimated fraud risk.
Julia Mickey Wilson, a specialist with the Internet Fraud Complaint Center, a joint initiative between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, says some Romanians set up fake internet auction sites and accounts.
They then get unsuspecting Americans to send them money for products that do not actually exist.
"A lot of times they don't feel they're actually committing a crime," she said. "It's more of an opportunity - if you send them your money, you're sort of responsible, I think they have a mind set that they kind of look at it like that."
But Romanian authorities are now fighting back.
Computer programmer Varujan Pambuccian, a member of the Romanian Parliament, says that for too long, young computer workers in Romania have thought that hacking and writing viruses was a resume builder, the first step toward landing a well-paying computer security job.
He believes it is time to send a different message to young, computer-savvy Romanians.
"We are trying first of all to explain to them that nobody is hiring anymore hackers," said Mr Pambuccian.
"We're trying to explain to them now that this is not a way of finding better jobs. This is a way of finding better jails."
The politician wrote and pushed through Romania's recently passed cyber-crime law. It is, he says, very punitive and very simple.
"We've translated the laws from the real world into the cyber world. Because a site is my home in cyberspace, and if someone is trying to force my door, it's the same as an illegal intrusion.
"It's 15 years of jail is someone is trespassing on my property here in Romania. It's the same on the internet."
Tough law-making has been reinforced through the creation of a special cyber-crime unit within Romania's national police.
It is headed by Virgil Spiridon, who has been working with the FBI and other Western European police agencies to tackle cyber-crime.
"I think the way we could resolve the problem is to make some programs in which these young people have something to create," he says.
"We shouldn't give them time to think about ways to do internet crime. And I think the private sector should do that, not only the police."
The Romanian authorities hope that legislation, enforcement and technology can make the country a leader in the fight against cyber-crime.
The FBI has praised Romanian authorities for their efforts. US officials have even suggested that Romania could serve as a model for the whole of Eastern Europe.
"We're starting to make some headway," he said. "But it's going to get worse before it gets better."
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