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'Whistleblower' Websites Help Fight Crime, Fraud - 2002-03-27

Two-days after September 11, the FBI had received 2,000 tips about the terrorists on its telephone line, but more than 22,000 tips on its web site. Internet Web Sites are becoming prime sources for solving crimes and fighting business fraud.

Jason Thomas of the Internet Fraud Complaint Center says people come to his organization's web site to report financial crimes, investment scams they have been victimized by and credit card frauds.

The web site then refers the information to the appropriate law enforcement agency. Recently, he says, someone complained that she had bid for an item at an auction, paid for the item, and never received it.

That morsel of information, he says, led prosecutors to uncover a multi-million dollar fraud case. "And it all started off with a $10 complaint. And what happens is, nine times out of 10, what gets reported to us is the tip of the iceberg. What we get is probably ten to 20 percent of what is out there," Mr. Thomas said.

Mr. Thomas says the web site's strength is the privacy it affords the people who visit it. "Because the victim does not have to face someone, they have a tendency to report more things. When I dial the police department I have to speak to someone and tell them I was victimized by a crime. With this mechanism that we have set up the citizen feels a sense of anonymity," Jason Thomas said.

U.S. software publishers lose about $12 billion a year to software pirates, people who buy one software program and then make multiple copies.

Bob Kruger of the Business Software Alliance says his organization set up an "anti-piracy" web site to get witnesses to report incidences of piracy. He says, it has worked. "The information that we have received [at the web site] enables us to conduct investigations and bring legal actions against businesses that are, say, taking a single software program and installing it onto all of their office computers," Bob Kruger said.

Mr. Kruger agrees it is the anonymity of the web site that appeals to people. A recent visitor to the web site, for example, stressed that he wanted his company to stop pirating software, but he also wanted to keep his job. "He asked us to investigate the company, but not to tell them who made the report. We did that. That company paid a very stiff penalty for the infringement that occurred, but that gentleman is still working there and the company never figured out who reported them," Mr. Kruger said.

Electronic tips are also easy to put into data bases, Mr. Kurger says, where they can be shared with law enforcement authorities all over the world.