By C.J. Barbre

Unthinkable as it is today, there are those of us who can remember party lines or telephone service shared by two or more parties or customers.

Back then, not infrequently you would pick up your phone to make a call, and find someone already talking on the line. The polite thing to do, obviously, was to say 'Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt,' and hang up. But nosy neighbors could silently lift the button back up and listen in on the conversation.

Fast forward 50 years to the new age of wireless communications and we have effectively recreated the party line. But it is not just nosy neighbors learning about your private business. Cyber thieves can access virtually every thing stored on your personal computer and steal your identity.

"Identity theft is the fastest growing high tech crime in the nation, with a victim every 20-25 seconds nationwide," said Operations Commander of the Sacramento Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force Lt. Bob Lozito.

He was speaking at the forum on White Collar Crime held at the Visalia Holiday Inn on Tuesday, Nov. 9. In attendance were police personnel from most incorporated cities in the county as well as representatives from financial and health institutions, CPAs, non-profits, the Small Business Administration, credit unions, the County Office of Education and even one senior who was still fighting mad that he had been a victim of identity theft after his wallet was stolen from a locker at a very popular south county fitness center by a thief with bolt cutters.

Lt. Lozito was just one of an impressive roster of speakers on the day-long seminar that started with Tulare County Sheriff Bill Wittman and District Attorney Phil Cline, and worked its way up to keynote speaker McGregor Scott, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California that covers all of the Central Valley from the northern edge of Los Angeles County to Oregon and from I-5 to Nevada.

Six years ago identity theft wasn't even designated a crime. Today it's a felony under the federal Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998.

But most of the crime is not being committed with bolt cutters or even wireless stealth. The No. 1 underlying source of identity fraud is theft of employee records according to a 2002 report from TransUnion, one of the nation's three credit bureaus. When someone steals a wallet, they get one name, one Social Security number. When they steal personnel files, they could get dozens, hundreds. In 2002, thieves broke into a state government computer database and accessed the names, addresses, SSNs and payroll information of virtually all of the state's 265,000 employees, ranging from office workers to the governor.

"The Internet is bedrock of a lot of our problems globally, in terms of how fast technology changes," Lozito said. He said technology is changing to meet the demand of citizens who want instant information and want to be able to check whatever they want, be it e-mail, personal files or Internet access, at any time. "Airports are outfitted for wireless because the business sector wants to get on line anywhere. Not everybody is trying to do nefarious things, but the people I deal with are." Lozito said it is already difficult to follow hard-wired systems, and wireless technology will turn investigations into nightmares. "Starbucks and McDonalds have wireless systems in place. It's very easy to get in and assume somebody else's system. We have gone out looking for open ports. The criminally intended can steal files, software, data, so that they look like the legitimate guy. We need to educate the community on how easy this is to do."

Lozito said technology solutions are needed for technology problems, "We can't put enough cops on identity theft - like the war on drugs that's not working either." He said the solution is to become proactive instead of reactive. The thieves have begun to target businesses instead of individuals, Lozito said, because corporations have much more credit value and potential than individuals. "They can get hundreds of thousands of dollars with a couple of keystrokes."

Data shows that 75-80 percent of high tech theft is committed or assisted by the victim company's own employees. "At some point somebody is going to have to get into the computers and figure out what happened," Lozito said. Companies are advised to not touch any computers once a crime has been discovered. But no suggestions were offered as to how a company continues to operate without its computers, particularly those present including banking, healthcare and education.

Lozito had more bad news. He said there are several groups who have figured out how to make fake free-standing ATM machines that appear to be identical to ones that can be found in malls. After a user has scanned their card, the machine flashes an out-of-service message. But it has already recorded your card and PIN number. He said then they get blank Visa cards, program in your information and pick up and go.

"Be mindful of where you're getting your cash," he said. They have found setups with pinhole cameras that record what people punch in as their PIN code. "If your ATM card is compromised, somebody can drain your account and you're responsible, compared to when you use a credit card, where the institution bears the responsibility. We have literally gone in and taken the entire contents of a house illegally gained."

But you can only use so much stuff. Fortunately there are online auction sites to move stolen property. Lozito said EBay works very hard to police itself but oftentimes those who have had property stolen look for it on EBay and frequently find it. He gave the example of several high end cappuccino machines, totaling more than $45,000 retail, that were stolen in an Internet scam. The owner got on EBay and ran cappuccino machines and found one in Florida. The Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force was called in and it turned out that a group of parolees were behind the thefts.

He said some bad guys are online 24/7 and the playing field is worldwide. He said the Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force was formed in 1995 because it became evident that just about every crime had a computer involved. And now there are PDAs, laptops and cell phones. "Criminals are becoming more and more sophisticated using technology to enhance profits with almost complete anonymity. Two strikers don't want to go down for good. They are educating themselves to be better criminals with very sophisticated systems involved in trafficking illegal products." New portable storage items have been introduced for saving information from computers, including watches, pens, key chains, a rubber ducky. Lozito said criminals have rigged their computers so that when they are turned off, everything on the hard drive is automatically erased, to foil law enforcement. They have even come across computers rigged with explosives that detonate when the system is disconnected.

Lozito said it takes three to five years to be considered knowledgeable enough in high tech investigations to be called as an expert for court testimony. And technology evolves so fast that it's extremely difficult to keep up. He said today the average cell phone has more memory than the computer of six or seven years ago. He said they have reached out to the business community regarding trends in crime and are working with the high tech industry on solutions. It was the industry that solved the cloned phone problems by going digital.

They are now working with academia that is training the technology workforce of tomorrow including UC Davis and Stanford University. Lozito said businesses need to trust high tech law enforcement and need to be willing to prosecute offenders. He said a good place to start would be by filing their complaint at the IC3 website, the Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov. For more information on the Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force visit www.sachitechcops.org.

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