Personal Computers Seized in N. County 'Hacking' Probe

Times Staff Writers

Nearly two dozen personal computer systems belonging to high school students in North San Diego County have been seized by FBI agents as part of a federal investigation into the unauthorized "accessing" into a computer data base belonging to a subsidiary of Chase Manhattan Bank.

No arrests were made, but an FBI spokesman said the investigation is continuing.

Chase Manhattan officials said Wednesday that no money was actually lost or transferred.

Interactive Data Corp. (IDC), the Chase Manhattan subsidiary, is based in Waltham, Mass., and serves about 25,000 customers, mostly businesses. A toll-free telephone number gives IDC customers access to its data base.

Most of the 23 suspects live in North San Diego County, and most are teen-agers, according to law-enforcement sources. Several of the suspects' parents said that FBI agents told them that raids at the students' homes late Tuesday night were staged to "make an example and discourage" future hackers.

Many of the students attend Mt. Carmel High School in Rancho Penasquitos and Poway High School, the school that graduated infamous computer hacker Bill Landreth, known as "The Cracker." Landreth was given a three-year suspended sentence last year for using his computer to read, among other things, private mail from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Defense Department. He later wrote a book explaining how hackers break into otherwise secure computers and how firms can protect against such security violations.

Students on Wednesday were upset over the FBI seizures, one Mt. Carmel student said. Agents issued claim receipts for the seized equipment and told the father of one suspect that the computer systems may be held for as many as 90 days, depending on "whether they decide to prosecute."

"I may have to get a lawyer to fight this thing," said the father of a Poway High School student.

"I hear they'll be cracking down in the Ramona area and in Oceanside," said a 14-year-old Mt. Carmel student. The student, who didn't want to be identified, said he couldn't remember making a phone call to IDC's toll-free number.

According to an FBI search warrant affidavit filed Wednesday in federal court, unauthorized attempts to enter IDC's data base through telephone connections began in June, and "various types of records were modified and/or destroyed."

Some passwords were changed, and one suspect said he could be "destructive if he wished," according to the FBI documents. He identified himself as "Lord Flathead."

The FBI's affidavit lists 53 attempts to enter IDC's data base between July 18 and Sept. 7. However, attempts to enter the IDC computer continued through Oct. 9, according to the affidavit.

Telephone taps on the suspected hackers' phones were authorized Aug. 7 by U.S. District Judge William Enright.

Under the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, first-time hackers face fines as high as $100,000, or one year in prison or both. Second-time offenders face fines of $250,000 and 10 years in prison.

One student said he was at home with his parents Tuesday night when two FBI agents knocked at the door and, armed with a search warrant, seized his Atari 800. The computer itself is worth only about $200, the student said, but the entire system seized by the agents is worth "about $3,000."

"My parents' reaction was the same as mine--shock," he said.

Typically, students use computer "bulletin boards" to communicate with each other and play computer games.

The student said that the bulletin boards at the two schools--Poway School Net and White Knight's Castle--are not used for hacking.

Those who were hacking into Chase Manhattan's subsidiary, said the student, "didn't even know where they were calling."

A 15-year-old Vista High School student insisted that he has "no record of ever calling" the IDC data base.

The student, whose $3,000 Franklin Ace 1200 computer system was seized by FBI agents Tuesday night, said that it is commonplace for bulletin boards to list the toll-free telephone numbers of out-of-town bulletin boards.

"Sometimes, (the messages) tell you things like, 'If you want to see a good board, call this number,' " the student said. "You get a tone and log on (with) a password from someone who already knew it. Or, sometimes it's just free access."

The student said, "I know it's a crime, but I didn't know it was hacking."

Reactions from parents of the suspected hackers ranged from terse "no comments" to cautious disbelief.

"This (telephone) line is probably tapped . . . at least, I don't know if it still is," the father of one 15-year-old Mt. Carmel High School hacker said in a phone interview Wednesday. The FBI seized his son's $1,000 computer system, including a keyboard, monitor, disc drive and modem, about 10 p.m. Tuesday.

The student got the IDC toll-free number from a local bulletin board and tried unsuccessfully to log on, the father said. Those calls, he added, "triggered the trace" back to the home phone.

Although he bought the home computer for his son, the man said he had enjoyed using the system too "until the FBI confiscated it."

Interestingly, the parents of the 15-year-old were alerted to the son's computer pranks when he began "running up (long-distance) charges to bulletin boards."

The parents made the teen-ager install his own phone and pay for the long-distance bills with profits from his paper route.

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