Internet crimes on the rise
PITTSFIELD -- In 2009, a woman at a small business in the city clicked on a seemingly innocuous email. It released a "Trojan horse" computer program that added three payees to the company's payroll account and in short order stole thousands of dollars from the company.
The crime originated nearly 5,000 miles away in Ukraine and involved the use of three people across the United States who picked up cash that was wired to them. They would collect the money, take a cut and send the rest back to the Eastern European criminals who were behind the scheme.
Pittsfield Police Detective Timothy Koenig stopped one of the criminals in California, preventing him from picking up the money, but the other two got away.
This is just one example of the speed and reach of crimes that originate on the Internet and affect the residents of Berkshire County.
"We've seen a vast increase [of Internet-based crimes] over the last six or seven years," said Pittsfield Police Detective Capt. Patrick F. Barry. "They prey on the vulnerable population."
Often, there is little that police can do once a person has become a victim of these types of crimes, Barry said. But even though these scams have increased, he said the number of incidents reported to the Pittsfield Police Department are low -- only one or two a year.
Statewide, Massachusetts residents lost more than $6 million in 2011 from reported Internet-based crimes, according to the federal Internet Crime Complaint Center. National losses were $485 million.
Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless said his office doesn't handle many crimes involving the use of the Internet. Those are mostly handled by federal authorities or the state attorney general's office, due to "jurisdictional issues," he said.
The Berkshire DA does handle local child pornography cases that involve the Internet, but the attorney general has its own cyber crime division.
While cyber crime generally is defined as any crime conducted via the Internet or any other computer network, when taken in a broader context, the use of technology for criminal activity "is exploding" and includes the use of texting in the drug trade and threats made on social networking sites, according to Capeless.
A new Digital Evidence Unit recently has been set up by state police officers attached to the Berkshire district attorney's office. The unit is set up to analyze computers, cellphones and other electronic devices taken in criminal investigations.
Technology is so pervasive today that it's at "every crime scene," according to State Trooper Steven Jones of the Berkshire Detective Unit. Like any other evidence, it must be collected and analyzed.
On the flip side, the pervasiveness of technology also has changed how defense attorneys practice their craft.
"It's definitely changed the advice I give my clients. I tell them to take down their Twitter and Facebook accounts," said attorney David Pixley of Pittsfield.
He said law enforcement agencies often access accounts that belong to defendants and can use the information to prosecute them.
Pixley gave an example of cases that have involved the downloading and dissemination of material, whether it's child pornography or music, via peer-to-peer computer networks.
"The question becomes, ‘Did the person know the material was downloaded, and did they know it was being disseminated from their computer?' " he said. "With these networks, you can be sending this stuff out for weeks without even being aware of it."
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Internet scams ...
Auto auctions: Used cars advertised at prices below book value.
Granny: Hijacked email accounts are used to ask victims to wire bail money to a loved one who has been arrested, in many cases while traveling.
Lottery: Victims are asked to send money in order to "release" a large sum of cash they allegedly have won in an international lottery.
Romance: Individuals targeted on dating sites, social networking venues and chat rooms are asked to send money to online companions who allegedly are suffering from hardships.
Work at home: Stolen funds are moved through victim's accounts by perpetrators who advertise work-at-home opportunities. Victim's identity and account can be compromised.
Sources: FBI, Internet Crime Complaint Center, Pittsfield Police Department