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Feature Articles


August 2007
CYBERMAFIA

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

* * *

Cybermafia is a term used to describe all of the cybercrimes committed utilizing computers, especially the Internet.

"Organized crime has gone online. Cybercrime is considered as one of the major threats of global criminality. Because of its global nature, to combat cybercrime international collaboration is a necessity. To quote one antimafia expert, ‘White-collar mafiosi serve as the mangers of illegal affairs, and they make use of rapid information channels to attain their criminal objectives.’" (Pier Luigi Vigna, antimafia magistrate, 9-1-2004)

     Organized crime has entered the black market to acquire the software skills to facilitate its enduring criminal actions: fraud, racketeering, extortions as well as pedophilia, pornography and prostitution. The use of the new technology supplants the traditional techniques of intimidation and bodily harm with less risk and very profitable results.

     Cybermafia clans are especially active in Russia. According to official sources, in 2002 there were 3,782 crimes recorded, rising to 7053 in 2003, with these numbers showing a steady increase into 2006 and 2007. As information technology continues to develop, so does the potential for cybercriminality. The advantages of being once removed from the victim, by cyberspace, and the high probability of quick profit are simply too tempting.

     Estimates indicate that 25 percent of the world’s computers are involved in the so-called botnets. A botnet can constitute an integrated system of 20,000 to 30,000 computers that are illegally connected and employed to attack and blackmail economic organizations. Cyberhackers launch online attacks to commit identity theft and forcing extortion payments. The so-called malware programs are written for the sole purpose of generating illegal cash. Unlike the "street" mafiosi, cybermafiosi are well-hidden—"On the Internet nobody knows who you are"—in the mass of computer traffic, making police detection and resulting suppression a much more problematical undertaking.

     In many countries worldwide organized crime is well situated in cyberspace. In Germany the numbers of criminals online have grown since the early 1990s. The same can be said for Australia and Japan. The Nigerian mafias have been notorious for their success in scamming naïve victims via tempting e-mail correspondence. Auction fraud is the most prevalent of Internet crimes and particularly associated with Romania. Criminals saturate Internet auctions and offer many products. The victim sends money for the product indirectly to the "seller"—it can be through a phony escrow website. The victim never receives the product; the seller closes down the site, moves on, and the victim has no redress.

     The days of the nerdy solitary hacker who worked in solitude from his computer to attack another computer has now evolved into a true and proper online mafia, an organized cybermafia, which can mobilize method and means to perpetrate crimes on a global scale from any location. The information age has produced systems without limitations or geographical boundaries, separating the criminal and the victim by jurisdiction and great distance.

     Compared to the structure of the traditional mafia, cybercrime does not necessitate face-to-face interaction nor alliances, codes of honor, solidarity or intergenerational continuity. Formal organizational and hierarchical structures are simplified, with no need for enforcers or political connections. Cyberspace allows a great degree of freedom of action and an invisibility that would have been the envy of the old dons. The needs of cybercriminals include computer personnel, with savvy hackers, and a small administrative staff—capos and lieutenants. All the units work in concert to devise scams, hack into and control cyberspace for illicit gain. No attention is paid to the havoc created on vulnerable information systems and the associated high costs to the public, not to mention the nuisance factor to legitimate users.

     T he professional hacker is a full-time cybercriminal who earns his keep stealing credit card data as well as violating secure computer systems for purposes of gaining access to corporate information to blackmail and to empty bank accounts. Identity theft is the appropriation of another’s personal data without that person’s knowledge to commit fraud or theft. Blackmail extortion involves hacking into and controlling various industry data bases, promising to release control back to the company only if funds are received, or the subjects are given web administrator jobs. The hacker can threaten to compromise customers’ personal information in the organization’s data base unless payment is received.

     The Internet scamming techniques are many and the terminology presently used can be both confusing and overlapping. Two terms give a general sense of cybercrime: phishing and spoofing. They are somewhat synonymous in that both refer to forged or faked electronic documents.

     Spoofing indicates the dissemination of e-mail that is forged to appear as though it was sent by someone other than the actual source, such as a governmental agency or a recognized company or website.

      Phishing, often used in conjunction with a spoofed e-mail, is the act of sending an e-mail falsely claiming to be an established business in an attempt to dupe the unsuspecting recipient into divulging personal and sensitive information, such as passwords, credit card numbers, bank account data, after directing the person to visit a specified website, one which is not genuine and established solely to lure the victim into a trap.

     The profile of the typical hacker is that of a young male, a socially marginal loner, alienated from the conventional norms, who has no regard for authority. He enjoys the challenges of engaging in informational mayhem. That experience gives him the skills that translate easily from the recreational to the criminal. Hackers represent a virtual community within which there is keen competition for top status. Hacking gives to the hacker a comforting feeling of power over others and an exaggerated pride based on a sense of belonging to an exclusive and very elite club. Hacking, the hacker concludes, is only for the chosen few, reinforced by the obvious observation that hackers are envied and in high demand.

     The best of the hackers, called phishers, are central to what makes cybercrime much more than just another mafia global phenomenon. The traditional blue-collar boss has been replaced by the white-collar manager, the enforcer by the hacker. The community of crime, some attest, is undergoing a revolution, the like of which have never been seen: "Criminality is becoming even more cyber. Classical crimes are now conducted with a ‘click.’"

     


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