Organized Crime and Cyber-Crimeby Jennifer Sasser Director ViSalus Sciences
Organized Crime and Cyber-Crime: Implications for Business
Phil Williams, CERTÂ® Coordination Center
The capabilities and opportunities provided by the Internet have transformed many
legitimate business activities, augmenting the speed, ease, and range with which
transactions can be conducted while also lowering many of the costs. Criminals
have also discovered that the Internet can provide new opportunities and multiplier
benefits for illicit business. The dark side of the Internet involves not only fraud and
theft, pervasive pornography and pedophile rings, but also drug trafficking and
criminal organizations that are more concerned about exploitation than the kind of
disruption that is the focus of the intruder community. In the virtual world, as in the
real world, most criminal activities are initiated by individuals or small groups and
can best be understood as â€œdisorganized crime.â€ Yet there is growing evidence
that organized crime groups or mafias are exploiting the new opportunities offered
by the Internet. Organized crime and cyber-crime will never be synonymous â€“
most organized crime will continue to operate in the real world rather than the
cyber-world and most cyber-crime will continue to be the result of individuals
rather than criminal organizations per se. Nevertheless, the degree of overlap
between the two phenomena is likely to increase considerably in the next few
years. This is something that needs to be recognized by business and government
as an emerging and very serious threat to cyber-security. Accordingly, this
analysis sets out to do three things:
1. Explain why the Internet is so attractive to criminals in general and to
criminal organizations in particular.
2. Identify some clearly discernible trends that provide important clues about
ways in which organized crime and cyber-crime are beginning to overlap.
3. Identify a series of measures necessary for business to respond effectively
to the growing exploitation of the Internet by organized criminals.
Organized Crime and Cyber-Crime
Organized crime is primarily about the pursuit of profit and can be understood in
Clausewitzian1 terms as a continuation of business by criminal means. Criminal
organizations are not the only players in illicit markets, but they are often the most
important, not least because of the added â€œcompetitivenessâ€ that is provided by the
threat of organized violence. Moreover, criminal organizations tend to be
exceptionally good at environmental scanning in the search for new criminal
enterprises and activities. In this context, the Internet and the continuing growth of
electronic commerce offer enormous new opportunities.
1 [Editorâ€™s note: Carl Phillip Gottleib von Clausewitz (1780-1831) was a Prussian soldier and
intellectual who wrote a book on military strategy entitled On War.]
In recent years, there has been a massive increase in the sophistication of
organized crime and drug trafficking groups. Colombian drug trafficking
organizations, for example, have followed standard business practices for market
and product diversification. Criminal organizations have increasingly hired financial
specialists to conduct their money laundering transactions. This adds an extra
layer of insulation while utilizing legal and financial experts knowledgeable about
the layering of financial transactions and the availability of safe havens in offshore
financial jurisdictions. Similarly, organized crime does not need to develop
technical expertise about the Internet; it can hire those in the intruder community
who do have the expertise, ensuring through a mixture of rewards and threats that
they carry out their assigned tasks effectively and efficiently.
Organized crime groups typically have a home base in nations that provide safe
havens from which they conduct their transnational operations, such as various
kinds of trafficking activities. In effect, this provides an added degree of protection
against law enforcement and allows them to operate with minimal risk. The
inherently transnational nature of the Internet fits perfectly into this model of
activity and the effort to maximize profits within an acceptable degree of risk. In the
virtual world there are no borders (a characteristics that makes it very attractive for
criminal activity); yet when it comes to policing this virtual world borders and
national jurisdictions loom large â€“ making large-scale investigation slow and
tedious at best, and impossible at worst.
The Internet itself provides opportunities for various kinds of theft. Online thieves
can rob online banks or illicitly gain access to intellectual property. The Internet
offers new means of committing old crimes such as fraud, and offers new
vulnerabilities relating to communications and data that provide attractive targets
for extortion, a crime that has always been a staple of organized crime.
The anonymity of the Internet also makes it an ideal channel and instrument for
many organized crime activities. The notion of a criminal underworld connotes a
murkiness or lack of transparency, where who is doing what is usually hidden from
view. Secrecy is a key part of organized crime strategy and the Internet offers
excellent opportunities for its maintenance. Actions can be hidden behind a veil of
anonymity that can range from the use of ubiquitous cyber-cafes to sophisticated
efforts to cover Internet routing.
Organized crime has always selected particular industries as targets for infiltration
and the exercise of illicit influence. In the past, these have included the New York
garbage hauling and construction industries and the Fulton Fish Market, the toxic
waste disposal and construction industries in Italy, and the banking sector and
aluminum industry in Russia. From a n organized crime perspective, the Internet
and the growth of e-commerce can be understood as the provision of a new set of
targets for infiltration and the exercise of influence â€“ a prospect that suggests that
Internet technology and service firms should be particularly careful about
prospective partners and financial supporters.
In sum, the synergy between organized crime and the Internet is not only very
natural but also one that is likely to flourish and develop even further in the future.
The Internet provides both channels and targets for crime and enables them to be
exploited for considerable gain with a very low level of risk. For organized crime it
is difficult to ask for more. It is critical, therefore, to identify some of the ways in
which organized crime is already overlapping with cyber-crime.
Major Trends in Organized Crime and Cyber-Crime
The first trend is that organized crime groups use the Internet for major fraud and
theft activities. Perhaps the most notable example of this â€“ albeit an unsuccessful
one â€“ occurred in October 2000 and concerned the Bank of Sicily. A group of
about 20 people, some of whom were connected to mafia families, working with an
insider, created a digital clone of the Bankâ€™s online component. It then planned to
use this to divert about $400 million allocated by the European Union to regional
projects in Sicily. The money was to be laundered through various financial
institutions, including the Vatican bank and banks in Switzerland and Portugal. The
scheme was foiled when one member of the group informed the authorities.
Nevertheless, it revealed very clearly that organized crime sees enormous
opportunities for profit stemming from the growth of electronic banking and
Indeed, organized crime diversification into various forms of cyber-crime or
Internet related crime is closely related to a second discernible trend â€“ organized
crime involvement in what was once categorized as white collar crime. The
activities of the US mob and Russian criminal organizations on Wall Street fall into
this category: during the late 1990s there were numerous cases of criminal
organizations manipulating micro-cap stocks using classic â€œpump and dumpâ€
techniques. While much of this was done through coercion or control of brokerage
houses, the Internet was also used to diffuse information that artificially inflated the
price of the stocks. Among those involved were members of the Bonnano,
Genovese, and Colombo crime families as well as Russian immigrant members of
the Bor organized crime group. As criminal organizations move away from their
more traditional â€œstrong armâ€ activities and increasingly focus on opportunities for
white collar or financial crime, then Internet-based activities will become even
more prevalent. Since Internet-related stock fraud results in $10 billion per year
loss to investors, it offers a particularly lucrative area for organized crime
This is not to suggest that organized crime will change its character. Its inherent
willingness to use force and intimidation is well suited to the development of
sophisticated cyber-extortion schemes that threaten to disrupt information and
communication systems and destroy data. Indeed, the growth of cyber-extortion is
a third significant trend. Although extortion schemes â€” as the Bloomberg2 case
showed â€” are sometimes bungled, they can be done in ways that incur only
modest risks (because of anonymity) and yield high pay-offs. Indeed, this might
already be a form of crime that is significantly under-reported. Yet it is also one
that we can expect to see expand considerably as organized crime moves
enthusiastically to exploit the new vulnerabilities that come with increased reliance
on networked systems.
A fourth trend is the use of what were initially nuisance tools for more overtly
criminal activities. Perhaps the most notable example of this occurred in Fall 2000
when a variation of the Love Letter worm was used in an effort to gain access to
account passwords in the Union Bank of Switzerla nd and at least two banks in the
United States. Although this episode received little attention â€“ and it is not entirely
clear who the perpetrators were, it gives added credence to the point made above
that there is a growing relationship between organized crime and intruders who
provide the technical expertise.
A fifth trend that we can expect to see is what might be termed jurisdictional
arbitrage. Cyber-crimes â€“ certainly when they are linked to organized crime â€“ will
increasingly be initiated from jurisdictions that have few if any laws directed
against cyber-crime and/or little capacity to enforce laws against cyber-crime. This
was one of the lessons of the Love Bug virus. Although the virus spread worldwide
and cost business billions of dollars, when FBI agents succeeded in identifying the
perpetrator, a student in the Philippines, they also found that there were no laws
under which he could be prosecuted. Although more and more countries (including
the Philippines) are passing legislation dealing with cyber-crime, there will
continue to be what have been termed jurisdictional voids from which criminals
and intruders can operate with impunity. Indeed, it is possible that some
jurisdictions will increasingly seek to exploit a permissive attitude to attract
business, creating both information safe havens (paralleling offshore tax havens
and bank secrecy jurisdictions) that make it difficult for law enforcement to follow
information trails and insulated cyber-business operations.
A sixth trend is that the Internet is increasingly likely to be used for money
laundering. As the Internet becomes the medium through which more and more
international trade takes place the opportunities for laundering money through
over-invoicing and under-invoicing are likely to grow. Online auctions offer similar
opportunities to move money through apparently legitimate purchases, laundering
money by paying much more than the goods are worth. Online gambling also
makes it possible to move money â€“ especially to offshore financial centers in the
Caribbean. Moreover, as e-money and electronic banking become more
widespread, the opportunities to conceal the movement of the proceeds of crime in
an increasing pool of illegal transactions are also likely to grow.
2 [Editorâ€™s note: Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg L.P, an information services, news, and
media company, worked with the FBI in a sting operation to apprehend cyber-extortionists, who
were arrested in August 2000.]
A seventh trend is what might be termed growing network connections between
hackers or small-time criminals and organized crime. In September 1999, for
example, two members of a group known as the â€œPhonemastersâ€ were jailed for
two years and 41 months respectively. They had penetrated the computer
systems of MCI, Sprint, AT&T, and Equifax. One of them, Calvin Cantrell had
downloaded thousands of Sprint calling card numbers that were sold to a
Canadian who passed them to someone in Ohio, from whom they went to an
individua l in Switzerland and subsequently to organized crime groups in Italy. As
well as intruders working directly for criminals, these network connections between
the two kinds of groups are likely both to deepen and to widen.
In addition, of course, organized crime groups use the Internet for communications
(usually encrypted) and for any other purposes when they see it as useful and
profitable. Indeed, organized crime is proving as flexible and adaptable in its
exploitation of cyber-opportunities as it is many other opportunities for illegal
activity. The implications are far-reaching and require a response not only from
governments but also from businesses that can all too easily become the targets
of organized crime and cyber-crime.
Implications for Business
The implications of all this for business are far-reaching. They suggest that there is
a need for major changes in thinking about cyber-security and in planning and
implementing security measures. These are particularly important if e -commerce is
to reach its full potential and if individual companies are to avoid significant losses
as a result of criminal activities. Perhaps the most important changes are in
thinking. This has two distinct but overlapping dimensions: security has to be
understood in b road rather than narrow terms, and security can no longer be an
after-thought, but needs to be part of intelligence, planning, and business strategy.
With this in mind, there are several specific recommendations that need to be
considered carefully by firms in the high-tech sector.
1. Recognize the real problem is crime, not hacking
Organized crime and cyber-crime are becoming an increasingly salient component
of the business environment. Disruption, denial of service, and web site
defacements will continue to be problems, but exploitation of access to information
systems for profit is likely to become more pervasive. The trend towards accessing
business systems, highlighting security holes, and offering oneâ€™s services for a
significant fee, for example, is a thinly veiled form of extortion. As such, it is very
difficult from traditional hacking that is designed to highlight security problems and
ways of dealing with them as simply a demonstration of expertise.
2. Business intelligence needs to include criminal intelligence analysis
Indeed, criminal intelligence analysis needs to be integrated fully into business
intelligence; risk assessment needs to incorporate criminal threats; and cybersecurity
needs to be conceptualized as part of a broader security problem that
cannot be understood or dealt with in strictly technical terms. Defending against
such contingencies requires that high-tech firms develop broad security programs
that incorporate cyber-security into a much broader program. Cyber-security
needs to be one component of a broader security program that includes
personnel, physical assets, the provision of services, and financial assets. An
arrangement in which the security officer is responsible for cyber-security as part
of a comprehensive mandate is likely to be more effective and appropriate than
one in which cyber-security is seen as a distinct portfolio separate from other
components of security.
3. Beware of infiltration
If cyber-extortion is likely to be a growing problem, another danger is that the hightech
industry is vulnerable to infiltration by organized crime, especially when
seeking foreign partners. Consequently, the kind of due diligence exercise that has
long been common in the banking sector needs to be extended to other industries.
For bankers â€œknow your customerâ€ has become standard practice. For the hi-tech
business, it is perhaps even more important to know your partners, especially
when they are from another country. Questions need to be asked about their
financing, their clients, and their associates â€“ as well as the extent to which there
are laws against cyber-crimes. Thorough background checks are essential prior to
allowing any joint use of data and communication systems, or to bringing in their
representatives to work with oneâ€™s own employees. When there is overseas
expansion, these background checks need to be extended to new employees and
consultants. Although this might appear to be an exaggerated concern, it is not.
One characteristic of Russian organized crime, in particular, is the systematic way
in which it has infiltrated and, in some cases, come to dominate particular
economic sectors, often operating through apparently legitimate front companies.
Organized crime has infiltrated large parts of the Russian banking system,
dominates the energy sectors in St. Petersburg, and has made great inroads into
the hotel system. There is no reason that the high-tech sector should be exempt.
Indeed, Mikhail Cherny, a well-known Russian entrepreneur with a very dubious
reputation, was expelled from Bulgaria in the summer of 2000. He had a
controlling interest in Mobiltel, the largest provider of cellular telephones in the
country, and had been engaged in several fraudulent activities as well as
suspected money laundering. Although the dangers are greater when companies
operate in other countries, even in the United States there are problems with
organized crime. Russian criminals in the United States, for example, operate
through Ã©migrÃ© networks, and there is a growing Russian presence in the
information technology sector that could very easily be connected in some ways to
Russian organized crime.
4. Be sensitive to money laundering opportunities
Companies offering financial services on the Internet â€“ and particularly those
offering mechanisms to facilitate financial transactions â€“ need to take steps to
identify opportunities for money laundering. Once this is done, they need to
introduce safeguards to close loopholes and prevent money laundering. The more
this is done by the firms themselves, the less likely they are to be embarrassed
and the less likely they will be subject to government regulation.
5. Develop partnerships and information-sharing arrangements
Another response to the growing overlap between organized crime and cybercrime
is to develop a working partnership with government and law enforcement
agencies. Once again, there are precedents for this in other sectors. In recent
years, the major oil companies, although very competitive with one another,
established information sharing arrangements and worked very closely with law
enforcement to minimize infiltration by organized crime figures and criminal
companies. Government-private sector cooperation of this kind is not always easy,
and has been particularly fraught in the area of information security, particularly
regarding the issue of reporting. There is broad agreement that cyber-crime is
under-reported. One of the most important â€“ and understandable â€“ reasons is
concern on the part of financial institutions and businesses about reputational
damage. For e-commerce to continue to expand rapidly, transactions must be
perceived to be secure â€“ and there is a natural desire to avoid any disclosures that
might undermine customer confidence and place a company at a competitive
disadvantage. Unfortunately, this reticence works in favor of the criminals. There
are three levels at which the disclosure issue can be understood: within the
business sector itself, the relationship between business and law enforcement,
and full public disclosure. Indeed, the more the first two options are developed and
refined, the less need there will be for full public disclosure. One useful approach,
therefore, would be for companies within a particular sector to agree to share
information about cyber-crimes among themselves, on the assumption that similar
methods and techniques that are used against one are also likely to be used
against others. Even more important though is the development of mutual trust
between business and law enforcement. Indeed, there are several instances of
companies working closely with law enforcement in responding to cyber-threats.
Perhaps the classic example is the failed effort to extort Bloomberg. The head of
the company worked closely with the FBI and participated in a sting operation that
led to the arrest of the extortionists. For cooperation to be effective, however, law
enforcement agencies have to exercise considerable care and discretion not to
expose company vulnerabilities, while the companies themselves have to be
willing to report any criminal activities directed against their information and
None of these measures is a panacea. Nevertheless, each one can be understood
as a key element of what needs to be a comprehensive response. Individual firms
obviously have to tailor their security programs to their particular vulnerabilities
and needs. Unless they recognize that organized crime and cyber-crime are
becoming more convergent, however, their programs are unlikely to be sufficient.
â€œCERTâ€ and â€œCERT Coordination Centerâ€ are registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Copyright 2002 Carnegie Mellon University
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