It was 10:30 in the morning when a message popped up on the computer screen of a 13-year-old girl in Northern California. The instant message was unsolicited, meaning the alleged sender--Christopher Andreas Georghiou, a 21-year-old man in Turlock, California--was searching the profiles of young girls in his area. After a half hour of online chatting, the girl agreed to meet Georghiou.
Less than an hour after the first message was sent, Georghiou was in handcuffs and on his way to the Stanislaus County Jail for soliciting sex with a minor. But the "minor," in this case, was actually Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department Detective Ken Hedrick, a member of the Sacramento Valley Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force.
The Georghiou case is just one of many success stories to come out of the computer crime task forces that have blossomed across the United States in recent years. A variety of these collaborative efforts now exist, some cobbled together locally out of sheer necessity, others built carefully at the federal level to overcome the difficulties inherent in cybercrime investigations. All of these groups have members with a passion for technology and a devotion to fighting today's cyber criminals.
As these task forces have evolved over the past few years, significant progress has been made. But serious challenges lie ahead.
Local efforts. In the 1990s, even as the Internet was beginning its expansion from a network of bulletin boards to a globally connected information superhighway, computer crime was catching the attention of some local prosecutors and police officers separately but simultaneously across the country. The growth of these grassroots efforts was not unlike the expansion of the Internet itself: a core of computer aficionados building local ad hoc networks, then linking to other networks and gradually expanding their reach.
Bradley Gross, a former Miami-Dade County assistant state attorney and now an attorney with Becker & Polikoff, is one of these pioneers. He first became involved in prosecuting computer crimes in the early 1990S in Nassau County, New York, where he worked in the county district attorney's office.
"Because I had been, for lack of a better way of putting it, a computer nerd for 20 years or so, I was given the task of advising them on all computer cases that came in," he says. Gross prosecuted the nation's first cyberstalking case in 1994. Other cases included computer fraud and trespass issues.
Gross moved to Florida and went to work for the economic crime division of the state attorney's office. Along with a team of detectives originally trained in investigating cellular-phone fraud, Gross set up a task force known as the Special Investigation Unit for Internet and Computer Fraud in 1999. It was tough going at first, he says, because resources and time were scarce.
"It was a one-man show," he remembers. "I had the support of the office in that they gave me the time and leeway to pursue these kinds of cases, but there was no money allotted just to investigating these types of crime." The detectives who worked with him had to split their time between his unit and units that worked on more traditional crimes.
Gross and his team soon discovered that there was no shortage of crimes to prosecute. His unit became involved with "a vast gray area of cases that were floating around, people getting ripped off in more than a de minimus fashion that no one was doing anything about."
The gray area existed for several reasons, including a lack of understanding about the nature of these crimes and a lack of resources available to law enforcement agencies, according to Gross. Most police agencies back then tended to shrug online fraud off as a civil matter, he says, or they left it to federal agencies.
But the federal agencies adhered to an unwritten rule that they would only pursue cases where the amount of the loss or the type of defendant met a certain threshold, because resources were limited. …