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Sun, Aug 07, 2005 - Page 12 News List

Cyber stalkers lurk in the Web's darker corners

A new breed of Internet bully is on the prowl, infiltrating firms to extort money or maliciously damaging competitors

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

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

In a pair of missives fired off on Feb. 3, last year, 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 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.

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 CIA to put a face on the stalker. The manhunt, according to court documents and investigators, led last year to a suburban home in Maryland, its basement stocked with parts for makeshift hand grenades and ingredients for ricin, one of the most potent and lethal biological toxins. The authorities arrested the stalker last March, the same day they raided his home. He has since pleaded guilty.

What happened to MicroPatent is happening to other companies across the US. 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 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," said Frank Harrill, an agent with the FBI 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."

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 is mounting, data and research about the subject are 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.

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.

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