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Dragging the Net for Cyber Criminals

By Cynthia L. Webb
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 25, 2004; 10:34 AM

In an attempt to stem the growing tide of online scams, identity theft and the proliferation of junk e-mail, the Justice Department and state law enforcement officials have initiated what seems to be the largest dragnet yet against spammers, so-called "phishers" and other Internet con artists.

The Washington Post and New York Times both reported today that Attorney General John D. Ashcroft is expected to announce details about a far-reaching cybercrime crackdown in a news conference on Thursday.

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The effort "will include arrests, subpoenas and property seizures ... according to law enforcement and industry sources" and "some of the more than 100 enforcement actions" will go on through tonight, The Washington Post reported. The New York Times said federal and state officials "have quietly arrested or charged dozens of people ... in recent weeks, according to several people involved in the actions." The Times report also put the crackdown's scope in perspective. The announcement "is meant to highlight several different government actions related to computer crime. The department has conducted a handful of similar operations in the past, calling them cyber sweeps, but the crackdown to be disclosed this week is thought to be the biggest by far."
The Washington Post: Justice Dept. to Announce Cyber-Crime Crackdown (Registration required)
The New York Times: Dozen Charged In Crackdown On Spam and Scams (Registration required)

A number of the cases involve spam, the pesky junk that clogs e-mail inboxes and saps productivity and IT costs. Meanwhile, The Post explained, more than half the targets are scam artists such as phishers, who send out e-mails that look legitimate, often carrying a company logo and other details. The scams lead to bogus Web sites and e-mail addresses that entice computer users to divulge financial data and other personal details. The information is then used for identity theft and other crimes.

In advance of Ashcroft's news conference, Robert Wientzen, head of the Direct Marketing Association, told The Post: "It's a large number of cases." The DMA, a trade group, is involved because bona fide marketing efforts have taken a hit as consumers get inundated with spam and phony online offers. "The FBI, with help from the DMA, launched Operation Slam Spam a year ago, with technical operations at a field office in Pennsylvania. Wientzen said his organization provided financial and technical help. The actions to be announced Thursday will be the first fruits of the effort, though it is unclear how many of the cases involve formal charges or indictments. But Wientzen said he expects a second round of actions in the fall," the paper said.

The New York Times provided more details on the operation, which the DMA helped bankroll, the article said. "Many of the cases were developed by an unusual investigative team that combined federal law enforcement officials and executives from industries that do business through the Internet. Nearly two dozen investigators work in an office in Pittsburgh operated by the National Cyber-Forensics and Training Alliance, a nonprofit organization with close ties to the [FBI]," the paper said. More from the article: "The operation has built a database of known spammers, drawing from law enforcement agencies and from private companies that are investigating and bringing civil suits against some of the biggest users of junk e-mail messages. It has also deployed online decoys to catch spammers and has purchased products advertised in spam messages so that the financial records can be traced to the ultimate source of the message."

Fighting Spam

Officials are hoping the crackdown will make a dent in spam and other online problems, mirroring the expectations of federal lawmakers. "Congress passed a law last December criminalizing fraudulent and deceptive e-mail practices. The law subjects spammers to fines and jail terms of up to five years," the New York Times reported. "So far, the law has had little noticeable effect. Spam represents 65 percent of all e-mail, up from 58 percent when the law was passed, according to Symantec, a company that makes a widely used spam filter."

PC World has more numbers that are equally depressing: "In early August, the nonprofit group Consumers Union reported that in a survey of 2,000 e-mail users, 47 percent said spam had increased since the federal antispam law took effect in January. Sixty-nine percent said at least half the e-mail they receive is spam. This corresponds to a Commtouch Software study, which reports a 42 percent increase in the first half of 2004," the publication said Monday.
PC World: The Fog of Spam War

The United States is the breeding ground for most spam, according to anti-virus firm Sophos. The company said yesterday that "roughly 43 percent of spam sent around the globe originates from the United States, which enacted the federal Can-Spam Act in January to criminalize e-mail fraud. That percentage dwarfs the junk e-mail coming from South Korea and China, the second- and third-largest sources, respectively. South Korea accounts for 15 percent of the world's spam and China, 12 percent, according to a report from Sophos released Tuesday. Brazil is the fourth-largest ... at 6 percent," CNET's News.com reported. Agence France-Presse also picked up the report.

Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Sophos, said in a statement: "Several measures have been suggested to tackle spam - from charging to send e-mail to sender authentication mechanisms - but these alone will not solve the problem. Only a combination of technology, international legislation and user action will put a stop to spam."
CNET's News.com: U.S. Cooks Up Most Spam
Agence France-Presse via Australian IT: U.S. Largest Exporter of Spam

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