Cybercrime: It's Not Only Teenage Hackers, But Organized Gangs Now - Brooklyn's Polytechnic Gets $1.6M Grant To Combat It

Article posted with permission from Brooklyn Daily Eagle

BROOKLYN — Did you ever receive an email that purports to be from a large bank, or PayPal, or a department store that says there is a problem with your account, and asks you to type in your password? Or have you gotten one saying that your account is about to be terminated, and asking you to respond by “verifying” personal information, such as address, phone number and Social Security number? If you unwittingly responded to either one of these inquiries, chances are that you’d soon receive bills from credit cards in your name that someone else had opened, and you would have been the victim of cybercrime.

Cybercrime, or using the Internet and computers for the purposes of theft or fraud, is increasing today, to the extent that in 2004, it totaled $400 billion, according to FBI figures.

That’s why prestigious universities around the country, including Brooklyn’s Polytechnic, are trying to combat it. Last month, Polytechnic’s Center for Advanced Technology in Telecommunications was given a $1.6 million grant to develop cybercrime detection strategies, in cooperation with Columbia University and large corporations such as SIAC, Lucent Technologies and AT&T.

The award was made through the New York State Office of Science, Technology and Academic Research Centers (NYSTAR), and will be administered by Professor Shivendra Panwar, director of CATT.

With the advent of broadband, computer mobility, and voice-over IP, says Professor Panwar, “It’s getting to the point that many of the financial companies think it may interfere with business. Major banks want people to conduct banking electronically, but both the bank and the customers are getting scared.”

There are several types of cybercrime, from viruses that may put your personal computer out of business for a few days to “zombie” programs that use an unsuspecting person’s computer to target a large company’s computer system.

The teenage hackers who get a thrill from breaking into people’s computer systems are still around, says Panwar, but “what has been worse are organized cybercriminals who try to shake down large companies, who go to a company and say, ‘We will bring down your system unless you pay.’” Other, more common, types of cybercrime, he says, can range from “phishing,” or trying to get Social Security numbers and other information (as in the two examples given at the beginning of this story); to deliberately bombarding a person or company’s system with spam in order to slow their system down. Most computer crime, says Panwar, is done by insiders, people who work within a company and know the system’s weaknesses. That’s why much of the research that Polytechnic is doing involves trying to backtrack cybercrime so that it can be traced to its originators.

Today, he says, cybercrime is so entrenched that students in the school’s Computer Engineering Department and Computer and Information Department have to learn how to combat it as part of their course of study.

The school does have a sub-specialty within the Computer Engineering Department in combating cybercrime, adds Panwar. The program, co-sponsored by the National Security Association (NSA), offers students a full scholarship, and in return, they must work for several years for the NSA, the FBI or another government agency.

How can readers protect themselves? Prof. Panwar suggests that users keep changing their passwords, and use passwords that aren’t obvious (no birthdays, for example). He also suggests that users protect their PC with good anti-virus and anti-spyware programs.

“Or,” he said, “you can do what I do — use an Apple Macintosh. It’s more secure.”