Law enforcement makes moves to step up its game as Web-based criminals get focused

Sunday, July 31, 2011 at 10:05pm
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Photo illustration Bret Pelizzari

Kim Eugene Norris began preying on two minor girls, his neighbors in a Madison condominium complex, two years ago. He left Valentine’s Day gifts for a 15-year-old girl and her younger sister on the back porch of their home. 

Norris, according to his subsequent sentencing in federal court, brought the girls magazine articles featuring teenybopper fodder (such as the Jonas Brothers), talked with the girls when they met at the community pool, and eventually “friended” the older girl on Facebook. 

When the girls’ mother figured out what was happening, she deleted Norris from her daughter’s page on the social networking site — but not before Norris had downloaded images of the older sister and five of her friends. 

The feds later claimed Norris used computer software to manipulate digital photos of at least six girls — ages 11 to 15 — and posted doctored photos of the girls’ heads on pornographic images of others, making it appear the teenage victims had engaged in explicit sex acts. 

But the twist of Norris’ crime that could haunt the girls for life is that he posted the photos online with the girls’ real names and the school they attended. 

The 15-year-old’s family went to Metro police after learning from someone else that her likeness, posted along with her name and the school she attended, had shown up on a pornographic website. 

Metro Det. Michael Adkins, assigned to the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (as well as Metro’s Sex Crimes Unit), initially investigated the case but soon requested the U.S. attorney’s office come on board, because there is no law in Tennessee against digitally pasting a minor’s face onto a pornographic image and distributing the image. 

Metro police, the FBI and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation contributed to the investigation.

On July 14, 2010, a federal grand jury indicted the 56-year-old Norris on 15 federal counts for production of morphed child pornography. Two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge William J. Haynes Jr. sentenced Norris to 210 months in prison followed by 20 years of supervised release. 

 

A recent intrusion into the state’s website by a nebulous unorganized network of hackers known as “Anonymous” illustrates an apparent shift in motives of some hackers from monetary gain and criminal enterprise to attempts at political influence. 

An “Anonymous” video uploaded July 4 to the “anonyops” channel on YouTube claimed the state’s new cyber-bullying law was “clearly a bold attempt to crush our freedom of speech” and warned Tennessee lawmakers to “expect us.” 

A link posted later on anonyops.com, which functions as a public relations site for the group, leads to a file containing personal information — names, phone numbers and addresses — of several hundred government employees in spreadsheet format. Law enforcement officials declined to comment. 

Still, agencies tend to focus less on politically based hacks and more on criminal behavior. The TBI has placed much of its effort on cases involving the sexual exploitation of children, such as the Norris case. 

“Obviously that’s the greatest potential harm and the cases that are most deserving of our resources,” said Assistant Special Agent in Charge Richard Littlehale, of the TBI’s Technical Services Unit.

“In those instances, not only do you need to prevent that individual from distributing those materials. You also need to find that child and rescue them,” Littlehale said, adding that the bureau views possession and distribution of such images as “repeated victimization of those children.”

According to Littlehale, the law enforcement community is connected enough now across the country that geographic challenges once presented by the Internet are fairly easily navigated. But outside the country, the challenge is greater.

The Joint Cyber Crimes Task Force, made up of the FBI, TBI, Metro police, Franklin police and the Dickson County sheriff’s office, is another way in which law enforcement from the local to federal level pool resources and training to investigate online crimes.

Identity theft and credit card fraud cases often climb into the lap of the federal government — usually the FBI — because of the broad geographic, and often international, reach of the investigations. 

In June, a federal judge sentenced three California men for their roles in using nearly 200 gift cards that had been re-encoded with stolen credit or debit card account numbers at 13 Walmart stores in and around Nashville to buy more than 600 Walmart and Visa gift cards valued at about $100 each. 

Authorities believe the group, which included three more co-defendants, ran the same scam in five other states. 

But federal prosecutor Byron Jones of the U.S. attorney’s office in Nashville said the case might never have come to light if a routine X-ray scan hadn’t alerted a Transportation Security Administration screener at the Nashville International Airport to several hundred Walmart gift cards in the luggage of one of the defendants. 

And in 2009, Britain extradited a Romanian man, Florin Muresan, after U.S. Secret Service agents in Nashville said they were able to buy more than 1,000 stolen credit card account numbers, expiration dates and PIN numbers from Muresan via email. He was sentenced to 37 months in prison last year. 

Fraud cases, Jones said, can often be harder to prosecute because of the steps cyber criminals take to cover their tracks, such as using proxy Internet sites to direct their illegal online activities. 

If proxies are located in countries with strained diplomatic relations with the U.S. — especially those in Africa, Asia or Eastern Europe — the investigation often ends there at the lack of intergovernmental
cooperation. 

The FBI tends to specialize in financial-based computer intrusion cases, such as online banking fraud, something Supervisory Special Agent Scott E. Augenbaum of the bureau’s Cyber Crime Squad said continues to proliferate as more people not only do much of their banking online, but also reveal details of their lives on social networking sites.

For law enforcement fighting cyber fraud, Augenbaum said preaching prevention to the public is the best it can do for potential victims. Once the money leaves the victim’s account, it’s all but gone forever. 

The electronic money trail often tracks overseas and into the pockets of transnational organized criminal groups in the former Soviet Union and Asia. 

“How many of us go to sleep at night worrying about Russian organized crime in central Tennessee? But if you’re banking online, you could possibly be targeted,” Augenbaum said.

Part of his job is to work the public circuit spreading the law enforcement gospel in preventing online crime, which — aside from maintaining up-to-date antivirus software and knowing what the kids are up to online — he boiled down to a nifty slogan: “Think before you click.” 

Unlike the skill involved in cases of hackers cracking into a corporate or government website, cyber crooks preying on individuals exploit the victim’s trust either through “friending” someone on a social networking site and soliciting them to click on a malicious link, or doing the same through good old-fashioned email spamming.