FBI: Computer hackers plague N.C.

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Published Friday, April 14, 2000

FBI: Computer hackers plague N.C. By LEIGH DYER

CHAPEL HILL -- N.C. businesses are experiencing computer assaults similar to those that clogged the Internet and rattled Wall Street in early February, Charlotte FBI officials said Thursday.

Doris Gardner, supervisory agent of Charlotte's FBI computer crimes unit, is aiding the national investigation into the computer hacking that disrupted popular Web sites, including Amazon.com, CNN, and Yahoo!

Since the initial reports, investigators have identified multiple N.C. victims of hackers who use certain techniques to shut down Web sites. The investigation has also identified computer systems in North Carolina used by hackers as tools to commit such attacks, Gardner said.

Gardner and Chris Swecker, the agent in charge of the Charlotte FBI office, appeared together Thursday at the annual forum of the N.C. Electronics and Information Technologies Association. They urged private businesses to cooperate in stopping hackers who are wreaking millions of dollars in damage.

More than 100 business leaders listened as the FBI officials described how the damage is occurring and offered advice on how to prevent such assaults.

"We need your help in identifying the problem," Swecker said. "We need to know what's out there on the cyber-street, so to speak."

One target of investigators is a hacker who recently confessed to intruding into 400 computer systems worldwide within four months. He used them to launch "a distributed denial of service" attack against an N.C. company, Gardner said.

The technique involves hacking into computers and using them to direct a flood of messages into computers that run Web sites, overwhelming them and making the sites inaccessible to customers. The attack is relatively simple for most hackers, Gardner said.

Gardner and Swecker wouldn't discuss specifics of the N.C. connection because the investigation is still in progress. But Swecker told the business group to expect a wave of prosecutions soon.

"These are high-dollar damages and some of these people need to go away for a while," Swecker said.

Gardner said she couldn't yet say how many N.C. computer systems have been affected by the attacks because her unit is still tracing them.

Hackers in such cases are often teen-agers, Swecker and Gardner said. Their goal isn't money, but notoriety.

The recent attacks are just one form of computer crime that has created a skyrocketing caseload for Charlotte's computer crimes unit. Swecker said the unit's caseload has increased at least 300 percent in the past six months, though exact figures were unavailable Thursday.

The Charlotte FBI unit has investigated other computer crimes, such as the extortion attempt by a man convicted of planting bombs in several area Lowe's stores.

Another investigation led to the indictment of a former employee of the Lance Corp. The former employee was convicted in February of causing more than $150,000 in damages by hacking into Lance's computer system in 1998 and planting a "logic bomb" that disabled computers used by the snack-food company's sales force nationwide. His sentencing is pending.

He is the first in Charlotte's federal district to be convicted under the federal computer crimes law, Swecker said.

Prosecutions have been slow because of the reluctance of businesses to report security intrusions, Swecker said. Many companies fear they will get bad publicity and lose business, he said.

In an electronic world where speed and accessibility are top priorities, security usually comes last, Gardner said.

This summer, the FBI plans to form a task force with businesses to share information and alerts about hacking attempts.

Within the next month, the FBI plans to survey N.C. businesses to see how many have been the victims of cyber-attacks.

Robert Young, chairman of Red Hat Inc., a Durham-based software supplier, said he agrees with the FBI's goals.

But he believes the primary responsibility for stopping hackers lies with businesses.

By adopting strong security measures and fixing the holes that hackers exploit, businesses can make the problem eventually go away, he said.

Gardner said investigators don't want to interfere with business operations. Their goal, she said, is to catch the bad guys.

"We're not going to come in and take over your systems. We're not going to come in and take all of your computers," she told the group. "We just want to go in and see what's happening.

"If you report it, then we can prevent it."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), April 14, 2000

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