Cyber-Cops Outgunned

As cyber-crime soars, jurisdictional overlaps and a lack of resources are hampering law enforcement.

Bob Breeden isnt complaining, dont get him wrong. Special Agent Breeden, who heads the Computer Crime Division of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, in Tallahassee, feels fortunate to work in one of the few state police departments running a full-time cyber-crime division. With four other officers under his command and another 10 FDLE employees at his disposal, Breeden oversees a division with an embarrassment of riches compared with its counter parts in most other states.

Still, "there are days I feel like I need 10 more agents and more money," Breeden said. Considering Florida has the second-highest number of Internet-fraud incidents in the country each year and that Breedens team handles between 400 and 500 cyber-crime cases annually, its easy to see how resources can be stretched to the limit.

/zimages/6/28571.gifFor Part 1 of the series "Tales of Cyber-crime," click here.

Breeden knows that most jurisdictions have it far worse. "The vast majority of local law enforcement hasnt embraced technical investigations," he said.

Since the 1980s, when computer crimes first became a concern for law enforcement, agencies have wrestled with how to deal with the often-confusing, highly technical realm of the cyber-criminal. Early efforts to centralize enforcement within federal agencies were seen as convenient and mostly logical but ultimately have led to jurisdictional squabbles and turf wars.

"It is, in a word, chaotic," said Mark Rasch, a former U.S. Attorney who specialized in prosecuting computer crimes and is now the chief security counsel at Solutionary Inc., in Omaha, Neb. "Theres supposedly a memorandum of understanding between the Secret Service and the FBI about who takes what, but its usually whoever gets the first referral. [Today] you can have agents from the FBI, the Secret Service, and state and local police all working on the same case."

Meanwhile, as cyber-crime skyrockets, law enforcement at all levels is at once struggling to get a handle on the threat and trying to impress those holding the purse strings in government that it is an area in need of attention and funding. In fact, the federal monopoly on cyber-crime cases for nearly two decades had the effect of leaving state and local law enforcement departments with no resources to investigate such crimes on their own and gave state legislatures little incentive to approve funding for specialized training or task forces to tackle the problem.

As a result, during the Internet boom of the mid-to-late 1990s, most police departments were woefully unprepared for the resulting spike in online crime, experts say. Investigators accustomed to traditional cases with witnesses, clear evidence trails and time-tested techniques for tracking down suspects suddenly found themselves thrown into cyberspace, where chaos and anonymity reign. Compounding the problem: Most had little experience with computers and the Internet.

"I didnt have any real technical knowledge when I started doing this," said Breeden, who has been investigating computer crimes for nearly six years. "You learn as you go."

/zimages/6/28571.gifDo cyber-crime laws hurt more than they help? Find out here.

These days, even officers with technical backgrounds and relatively good support are often buried in cyber-crime casework.

"The online-fraud thing is so huge—we get so overwhelmed with it," said Larry Smith, a detective with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Departments Cybercrimes Unit. "We could probably put all 20 of us on that alone. We usually have more manpower than the FBI and Secret Service, so we work with them a lot."

Next page: Resource problem extends to FBI, Secret Service.