Every time you turn on the computer and get online, experts say, you are a potential victim of cyber crime.
The Internet Storm Center is a volunteer group that guards against criminal activity online. It is run by Marc Sachs. "For the criminal world it's what we like to call a perfect storm,” he said. “We have an Internet that is almost completely anonymous, perfect for criminal activity. We have an Internet that’s largely ungoverned."
Dan Larkin heads the Internet Crime Complaint Center at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI. He battles cyber crime daily, and says it is diverse and global.
"We have a substantial piece of cyber crime that emanates from West Africa, no surprise, Eastern Europe, Russia, some in Asia and South America as well."
These rings, and cyber criminals here in the United States, are involved in schemes that run the gamut from identity theft, to intellectual piracy, to sex crimes, fraud schemes, hacking, spamming, you name it… it is being done. But here is the surprising part: home users are usually unwitting accomplices.
Mr. Sachs told us, "We've got millions of users who don't keep their computer systems updated, who don't run anti-virus [software], who go to websites, download software [and] they don't know what they are downloading."
Experts say criminals are counting on that. When users do not update their systems, or use firewalls for protection, their computers can help spread viruses and worms, or invite trouble by downloading what are known as Trojans, some of which help spread chaos.
"Overnight your home machine, which is just sitting there silently consuming power, is actually sending out thousands of unsolicited e-mail messages and you don't even know it's happening," said Mr. Sachs.
The aim of some of the malicious e-mail or spam is to lure the user into clicking on a particular site or attachment. It's called "phishing" in the cyber world, and criminals use all kinds of schemes to reel the user in. The purpose of these schemes is almost always to get money, or steal someone's identity.
The FBI’s Dan Larkin explains. "…inviting you to go to your bank, or go to your E-Bay account, or go to some other account that they hope you have and update something with regard to your personal profile or your financial or personal data."
Identity theft is a huge piece of cyber crime. The best-publicized cases -- with potential losses in the millions of dollars -- have been breaches in corporate computer networks. But home computers are also at risk.
Every time you visit a website or click on an attachment, for example, you may be downloading a Trojan capable of stealing personal information.
Called the Keylogger, it watches and records keystrokes waiting for you to access a bank site or other financial institution.
March Sachs of the Internet Storm Center explains. “It knows that within 50 or 100-some odd key strokes, I'm likely to type in my user name, my password, mothers maiden name, a credit card number, a PIN [personal identification] number, or other things."
"The goal is to capture that, store it somewhere or transmit that information to another site for use in an identity theft or account takeover."
Dan Larkin of the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center says Russian cyber criminals used the Keylogger to take over thousands of identifications before they were put out of business last summer.
International shipping is another cyber crime scheme sweeping across the United States.
"We identified thousands of locations in the U.S. that were individuals and organizations that were being recruited and being used as reshippers," Mr. Larkin told us.
They were all connected to a Nigerian cyber crime ring that used stolen financial data to buy millions of dollars worth of goods and services to sell overseas. To avoid raising suspicion, they had the goods first shipped to the recruited U.S. citizens they called "mules."
"They would recruit somebody from the U.S. to receive the package so that the shipping label and address will look domestic, the guard would drop a bit from the merchant and they would let the package be shipped, only to find next day it had been reshipped -- overnighted -- and out of country to Nigeria. "
The ring was eventually broken up, but it's one more example of the breadth and ingenuity of Internet crime.
Cracking down on cyber criminals is an ongoing collaborative effort among international law enforcement officials, online retailers, and private and volunteer computer security groups.
Personal computer users can do their part, too. Experts say, keep your computers protected and updated. The FBI also recommends you visit the Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov to report suspicious activity or learn about the latest crime in cyber space.