[Paleopsych] NYT: The Rise of the Digital Thugs

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Thu Aug 11 21:18:12 UTC 2005

The Rise of the Digital Thugs
New York Times, 5.8.7


    EARLY last year, the corporate stalker made his move. He sent more
    than a dozen menacing e-mail messages to Daniel I. Videtto, the
    president of MicroPatent, a patent and trademarking firm, threatening
    to derail its operations unless he was paid $17 million.

    In a pair of missives fired off on Feb. 3, 2004, the stalker said that
    he had thousands of proprietary MicroPatent documents, confidential
    customer data, computer passwords and e-mail addresses. Using an alias
    of "Brian Ryan" and signing off as "Wounded Grizzly," he warned that
    if Mr. Videtto ignored his demands, the information would "end up in
    e-mail boxes worldwide."

    He also threatened to stymie the online operations of MicroPatent's
    clients by sending "salvo after salvo" of Internet attacks against
    them, stuffing their computers so full of MicroPatent data that they
    would shut down. Another message about two weeks later warned that if
    he did not get the money in three days, "the war will expand."

    Unbeknownst to the stalker, MicroPatent had been quietly trying to
    track him for years, though without success. He was able to mask his
    online identity so deftly that he routinely avoided capture, despite
    the involvement of federal investigators.

    But in late 2003 the company upped the ante. It retained private
    investigators and deployed a former psychological profiler for the
    Central Intelligence Agency to put a face on the stalker. The manhunt,
    according to court documents and investigators, led last year to a
    suburban home in Hyattsville, Md., its basement stocked with parts for
    makeshift hand grenades and ingredients for ricin, one of the most
    potent and lethal biological toxins. Last March, on the same day that
    they raided his home, the authorities arrested the stalker as he sat
    in his car composing e-mail messages he planned to send wirelessly to
    Mr. Videtto. The stalker has since pleaded guilty to charges of
    extortion and possession of toxic materials.

    What happened to MicroPatent is happening to other companies. Law
    enforcement authorities and computer security specialists warn that
    new breeds of white-collar criminals are on the prowl: corporate
    stalkers who are either computer-savvy extortionists, looking to shake
    down companies for large bribes, or malicious competitors who are
    trying to gain an upper hand in the marketplace.

    "It's definitely a growing issue and problem, and it's something we
    think will definitely increase in both the numbers and severity," said
    Frank Harrill, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation who
    specializes in computer crimes and who has investigated corporate
    stalkers and online extortionists. The reason, he said, is that "the
    Internet is ceasing to be a means for communication and commerce and
    is becoming the means for communication and commerce."

    Though the number of corporate stalkers appears to be growing - along
    with the number of payoffs to online extortionists - quantifying the
    dimensions of the threat is difficult. Last fall, a researcher at
    Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh published a study of online
    extortion involving small and medium-sized businesses, saying that the
    Internet's global reach had produced "a profound change in the nature
    of crime, as the existence of information systems and networks now
    makes criminal acts possible that were not before, both in increased
    scope and ease."

    THE study also concluded that while the threat of cyberextortion was
    real and mounting, data and research about the subject were scant.
    That is because most businesses, particularly blue-chip companies, are
    concerned about negative publicity from computer security breaches and
    do not want to report digital bullying and intrusions to law
    enforcement officials.

    "Cyberextortion was the main threat I identified that I thought
    corporations were overlooking," said Gregory M. Bednarski, the author
    of the Carnegie Mellon study, who now works at PricewaterhouseCoopers
    as a computer security consultant. "Unfortunately, I think that's
    still the issue - most companies are still not taking cyberextortion
    seriously enough. They just don't see themselves as vulnerable."

    MicroPatent, based in East Haven, Conn., realized firsthand how
    vulnerable its data was. The company was also an exception in the
    world of cyberextortion victims: it chose not only to fight back and
    to contact the authorities, but it also assembled its own team of
    specialists familiar with the strategies and weaponry of

    Even so, MicroPatent's stalker, using hijacked Internet accounts and
    pirated wireless networks, was remarkably elusive. "What this means is
    that the criminals are getting smarter," said Scott K. Larson, a
    former F.B.I. agent and a managing director of Stroz Friedberg, a
    private investigation firm that helped hunt down MicroPatent's
    stalker. "There's an arms race going on in cyberspace and in

    MicroPatent, a business that court papers describe as one of the
    world's largest commercial depositories of online patent data, first
    came under attack four years ago. Someone penetrated the company's
    databases and began transmitting phony e-mail messages to its
    customers. The messages were what are known as "spoofs," online
    communications - embroidered with pilfered company logos or names and
    e-mail addresses of MicroPatent employees - that are meant to trick
    recipients into believing that the messages were authorized.

    The spoofs, according to court papers and investigators, contained
    derogatory comments about MicroPatent in the subject lines or text.
    Some included sexually explicit attachments, such as sex-toy patents
    that a computer hacker had culled from the company's online files.

    MicroPatent and its parent company, the Thomson Corporation, did not
    respond to several phone calls seeking comment. But others with direct
    knowledge of the hunt for the company's stalker said MicroPatent,
    which had grown rapidly through acquisitions, had a computer network
    containing stretches of online turf that were once used by acquirees
    but were abandoned after the takeovers.

    Those digital back alleys offered access to the entire MicroPatent
    network to people with old passwords. Once inside, they could inhabit
    the network undetected - in much the same way that anyone with a key
    to one abandoned house on a block of abandoned houses can live in a
    populous city without anyone knowing he is there. And MicroPatent's
    stalker was lurking on one of its network's nether zones.

    By 2003, MicroPatent had become so frustrated with its unknown stalker
    that it reached out to the F.B.I. for help. But with its resources
    spread thin, the F.B.I. could not pin down the stalker's identity, his
    motivations or how he managed to trespass on MicroPatent's electronic
    turf. A year later, MicroPatent hired Stroz Friedburg and secured the
    services of Eric D. Shaw, a clinical psychologist who had once
    profiled terrorists and foreign potentates for the C.I.A.

    The first order of business, investigators said, was to narrow the
    field of MicroPatent's potential stalkers and to try to isolate the
    perpetrator. "You need to take the temperature of the person on the
    other side and determine how seriously you need to take them," said
    Beryl Howell, who supervised the MicroPatent investigation for Stroz
    Friedburg. "Is it a youngster or is it someone who's angry? Is it
    someone who's fooling around or someone who's much more serious?"

    Investigators said their examination of the stalker's communications
    indicated that he was much more than a hacker on a joy ride. That
    would be consistent with what law enforcement authorities and computer
    security specialists describe as the recent evolution of computer
    crime: from an unstructured digital underground of adolescent hackers
    and script-kiddies to what Mr. Bednarski describes in his study as
    "information merchants" representing "a structured threat that comes
    from profit-oriented and highly secretive professionals."

    STEALING and selling data has become so lucrative, analysts say, that
    corporate espionage, identity theft and software piracy have
    mushroomed as profit centers for criminal groups. Analysts say
    cyberextortion is the newest addition to the digital Mafia's bag of

    "Generally speaking, it's pretty clear it's on the upswing, but it's
    hard to gauge how big of an upswing because in a lot of cases it seems
    companies are paying the money," said Robert Richardson, editorial
    director of the Computer Security Institute, an organization in San
    Francisco that trains computer security professionals. "There's
    definitely a group of virus writers and hackers in Russia and in the
    Eastern European bloc that the Russian mob has tapped into."

    Mr. Richardson is a co-author of an annual computer-security study
    that his organization publishes with the F.B.I. The latest version
    said that while corporate and institutional computer break-ins
    increased slightly last year from 2003, average financial losses
    stemming from those intrusions decreased substantially in all but two
    categories: unauthorized access to data and theft of proprietary

    Among 639 of the survey's respondents, the average loss from
    unauthorized data access grew to $303,234 in 2004 from $51,545 in
    2003; average losses from information theft rose to $355,552 from
    $168,529. The respondents suffered total losses in the two categories
    of about $62 million last year. While many cyberextortionists and
    cyberstalkers may be members of overseas crime groups, several recent
    prosecutions suggest that they can also be operating solo and hail
    from much less exotic climes - like the office building just down the

    In March, a federal judge in San Francisco sentenced a Southern
    California businessman, Mark Erfurt, to five months in prison,
    followed by three and a half years of home detention and supervised
    release, for hacking into the databases of a competitor, the
    Manufacturing Electronic Sales Corporation, and disrupting its
    business. In June, the F.B.I. in Los Angeles arrested Richard Brewer,
    a former Web administrator for a trade show company, accusing him of
    disabling his employer's Web site and threatening further damage
    unless he was paid off. And last month in New York, the Westchester
    County district attorney's office charged a Tarrytown businessman,
    Gerald Martin, with hacking into a competitor's computer network in
    order to ruin its business by tampering with its phone system.

    Small-fry stuff, some of this, except that even local law enforcement
    officials say the episodes are multiplying. "We have 590,000 people in
    our county, but we're seeing lots of examples of lax or lackadaisical
    computer security," said Sgt. Mike Nevil, head of the computer crimes
    unit of the Ocean County, N.J., prosecutor's office. "We've seen lots
    of examples of people going onto a competitor's computer network and
    clearing out whatever information they can get."

    For its part, MicroPatent initially believed that its problems were
    the work of a competitor. It sued one company that it suspected but
    later dropped that lawsuit. After Ms. Howell's team joined the fray in
    late 2003, MicroPatent and its consultants began to isolate the
    stalker, using a small list of candidates distilled from earlier
    investigative work.

    Dr. Shaw's analysis of e-mail messages led them to believe that they
    were tracking a technologically sophisticated man, older than 30, with
    a history of work problems and personal conflicts, who was
    compulsively obsessed with details and who might own weapons. The
    stalker was extremely angry and "holding a grudge," Dr. Shaw recalled.
    "People like that can be very dangerous. He referred to himself as a
    soldier behind enemy lines."

    Within a few weeks, Dr. Shaw's analysis led the investigative team to
    focus on Myron Tereshchuk, a 43-year-old Maryland entrepreneur who ran
    his own patent business and had once been rebuffed by MicroPatent when
    he applied to the company for a job. And Mr. Tereshchuk was indeed
    their man. Members of Ms. Howell's investigative team all said that
    Dr. Shaw's profiling was a breakthrough in the pursuit, but that
    without the subsequent involvement of local and federal law
    enforcement officials, Mr. Tereshchuk would not have been captured.

    "It's about grinding out a lot of data; it's not about intuition -
    though years of working clinically with patients is certainly
    important," Dr. Shaw said. "The Myron case involved a fair amount of
    case management because we needed to keep him talking, we needed to
    keep him engaged, so we could set him up for an arrest."

    Indeed, the detective work that led to his arrest offers a revealing
    glimpse into how the new cat-and-mouse game is played in cyberspace -
    especially when the cloak of secrecy offered by newfangled wireless
    devices makes digital criminals so hard to track.

    In early 2004, private investigators began corresponding with the
    stalker, sending spoofed e-mail back to him in the "voice" of a
    MicroPatent lawyer. At the same time, federal authorities began
    physically tracking Mr. Tereshchuk's comings and goings in the real
    world. By February, the stalker had also become an active e-mail
    correspondent with Mr. Videtto, the MicroPatent president.

    It was then that the stalker made a series of mistakes. Among them, he
    began to brag. In an e-mail message titled "Fire them all," he
    informed Mr. Videtto that he had found valuable MicroPatent documents
    by going "Dumpster diving to the Dumpster and recycle bins located in
    a parking lot on Shawnee Road" in Alexandria, Va., where the company
    maintained a branch office. That allowed investigators to zero in on
    his location, further buttressing the notion that Mr. Tereshchuk, who
    lived nearby, was the author of the scheme.

    In the same message, the stalker wrote angrily that staff members at
    the United States Patent and Trademark Office in northern Virginia had
    snubbed him and given preferential treatment to MicroPatent employees.
    Several years earlier, a patent office worker accused Mr. Tereshchuk
    of threatening to bomb the agency.

    A computer forensics expert embedded a Web bug, a kind of digital
    tracking device, in one of the e-mail messages that Mr. Videtto sent
    to the stalker. But the stalker screened his e-mail with decoding
    devices that included a hex editor, software that allows users to
    preview the contents of incoming files, and he uncovered the bug. "Was
    it a script to capture my IP address?" the stalker wrote tauntingly to
    Mr. Videtto after finding the Web bug, referring to his Internet
    Protocol address. "I'll look at it later with a hex editor."

    Investigators said the failed bug worried them because they thought it
    might scare off the stalker, but by this point Mr. Tereshchuk had
    already demanded his $17 million extortion payment. He also clumsily
    revealed his identity by demanding that the money be sent to the
    person accused of threatening to bomb the patent office. And he kept
    sending e-mail messages telling Mr. Videtto that he had MicroPatent's
    customer lists, patent applications, customer credit card numbers and
    the Social Security numbers of some employees, as well as the
    employees' birth dates, home addresses and the names of their spouses
    and children.

    The stalker also threatened to flood the computer networks of
    MicroPatent clients with information pilfered from the company,
    overwhelming the customers' ability to process the data and thereby
    shuttering their online operations - a surreptitious digital attack
    known as distributed denial of service, or D.D.O.S. Such assaults,
    analysts and law enforcement officials say, have become a trademark of
    cyberextortionists. Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles are currently
    investigating a group of possible cyberextortionists linked to a
    television retailer indicted there last August. The retailer was
    accused of disrupting competitors' online operations, and prosecutors
    have called suspects in that case the "D.D.O.S. Mafia."

    "D.D.O.S. attacks are still one of the primary ways of extorting a
    company, and we're seeing a lot of that," said Larry D. Johnson,
    special agent in charge of the United States Secret Service's criminal
    division. "I think the bad guys know that if the extortion amounts are
    relatively low a company will simply pay to make them go away."

    Mr. Tereshchuk's apparent ability to start a D.D.O.S. attack attested
    to what investigators describe as his unusual technological dexterity,
    despite evidence of his psychological instability. It also explained
    how he was able to evade detection for years, and his methods for
    pulling off that feat surfaced after the F.B.I. began following him.

    Using wireless computing gear stashed in an old, blue Pontiac, and
    fishing for access from an antenna mounted on his car's dashboard, Mr.
    Tereshchuk cruised Virginia and Maryland neighborhoods. As he did so,
    federal court documents say, he lifted [3]Yahoo and America Online
    accounts and passwords from unwitting homeowners and businesspeople
    with wireless Internet connections. The documents also say he then
    hijacked the accounts and routed e-mail messages to MicroPatent from
    them; he used wireless home networks he had commandeered to hack into
    MicroPatent's computer network and occasionally made use of online
    accounts at the University of Maryland's student computer lab, which
    he had also anonymously penetrated.

    BY late February of last year, however, the F.B.I. had laid digital
    traps for Mr. Tereshchuk inside the student lab, which was near his
    home. As investigators began to close in on him, his e-mail messages
    to Mr. Videtto became more frantic. A note sent on Feb. 28 told Mr.
    Videtto that if he forked over the $17 million then "everything gets
    deactivated, sanitized, and life will go on for everybody."

    In his last e-mail message, sent several days later, he dropped his
    guard completely: "I am overwhelmed with the amount of information
    that can be used for embarrassment," he wrote. "When Myron gets
    compensated, things start to get deactivated."

    On March 10, 2004, federal agents swarmed Mr. Tereshchuk's home, where
    they found the hand-grenade components and ricin ingredients. The
    agents arrested him in his car the same day, in the midst of writing
    his new crop of e-mail messages to Mr. Videtto.

    Late last year, Mr. Tereshchuk was sentenced to five years in prison
    after pleading guilty to a criminal extortion charge filed by the
    United States attorney's office in Alexandria. Earlier this year he
    pleaded guilty to criminal possession of explosives and biological
    weapons, charges that the United States attorney's office in Baltimore
    had filed against him. Possessing illegal toxins carries a maximum
    term of life in prison. Mr. Tereshchuk is expected to be sentenced
    this fall.

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