Federal and state law enforcement officials in Virginia have launched a new statewide task force aimed at battling computer crime.
Members of the Virginia Cyber-Crime Strike Force will investigate and prosecute computer-related crimes, including child pornography, identity theft and hacking. Officials said the partnership of federal and state law enforcement agencies brings together the expertise and resources needed to effectively target what authorities say is a growing problem.
"Really none of the agencies, including the FBI, can handle the problem alone," said Mark Sykes, an FBI supervisory special agent who heads the task force. "By pooling our resources . . . we can get these cases prosecuted."
The strike force includes four full-time FBI agents, a Virginia State Police trooper and two investigators from the office of Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore. Three lawyers from Kilgore's office, as well as a prosecutor from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, will prosecute the cases.
Sykes said task force members, who will work out of the FBI's Richmond office, will have the expertise, high-tech tools and time to conduct far-reaching investigations that could involve Internet users in other states or even overseas. The group also will conduct undercover investigations online.
Paul J. McNulty, the U.S. attorney in Alexandria, who dedicated a prosecutor to the task force, said he's seen the damage someone can wreak while sitting at a computer keyboard in the privacy of a home. Hackers can disrupt government or business computer systems, and thieves can steal credit card numbers or even someone's identity.
As the Internet expands, McNulty said, so does the opportunity for people to misuse it. "It's increasing because those who are familiar with the technology are finding ways to commit criminal activity, and those who were previously unfamiliar are becoming familiar," he said.
One benefit of the task force, officials said, is that the team will be able to determine which crimes would be best handled in state courts and which merit the resources of a far-reaching federal probe.
The strike force's top priority will be crimes in which people may be in danger and those that involve threats to government computer networks, officials said. The team also will focus on fraud cases that involve a large number of victims.
The group will work to help computer users avoid becoming victims by educating the community about the latest Internet scams and frauds, Sykes said.
For example, he said, authorities have seen an increase in a criminal technique they call "phishing," in which online criminals send e-mail, which appears to come from legitimate businesses such as credit card companies or banks, to steal pass codes or other personal information.
Tim Murtaugh, Kilgore's spokesman, said a pending case in Loudoun County illustrates the types of incidents the task force will investigate. In that case, a North Carolina man is accused of violating Virginia's anti-spam law by using fraudulent e-mail addresses to disguise the origin of his bulk offers for low-price stock and home-mortgage schemes.
"The Internet is a wildly useful tool that makes our lives easier," Murtaugh said. "However, it presents a new frontier for criminal activities, as well."
Sykes said the task force will work with local law enforcement agencies that lack the manpower or training to investigate computer crimes. He said he ultimately plans to create "working groups" with local law enforcement agencies statewide to share information and ideas.