Joining Forces to Tackle High-Tech Crime

Times Staff Writer

Inside a “clean room” more sterile than a hospital’s surgery center, Jimmy Garcia searches day after day for clues to cyber terrorism and other electronic crimes.

Operating in the 20-by-20-foot enclosure in downtown Los Angeles, the senior investigator for the district attorney’s office inspects computers and other high-tech equipment.

All the while, air filters purify the environment, keeping it so clean that particulates far smaller in diameter than a hair are removed before they can damage a hard drive and make data retrieval impossible.


A veteran investigator, Garcia is the first member of the new Los Angeles Electronic Crimes Task Force created by the U.S. Secret Service. Charter members also include the Sheriff’s Department and the LAPD.

Patterned after a successful Secret Service operation in New York City, the Los Angeles task force is one of eight across the nation launched in recent weeks to help counter the threat of high-tech crimes. The clean room at the Secret Service’s downtown L.A. office is the only law enforcement facility of its kind on the West Coast

The New York office, the largest operation of its kind in the world, opened six years ago to investigate high-tech crimes ranging from money laundering to stock fraud, computer hacking and child pornography.

The office was in World Trade Center 7 and was destroyed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But, in an indication of its importance, the New York task force was able to set up shop again in two days, after receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of donated equipment and services from computer companies, telecommunications firms and financial institutions.

“We were knocked down. But we were not knocked out,” said the task force’s founder, Bob Weaver, deputy special agent in charge of the Secret Service’s New York office.

“Never before in my experience ... had companies rushed in at a time of crisis to help a government agency that had been damaged,” said Richard Clarke, the White House special advisor for cyberspace security.


Inspired by the success of the New York unit, federal authorities launched new task force offices, including the one in Los Angeles, where hundreds of security analysts and law enforcement officials gathered in late October to herald the opening.

“This,” said Brian Nagel, head of the Secret Service’s L.A. office, “is all about enhancing our current partnerships and building new ones.”

The goal of the task force is to guard not only against electronic crimes but also against cyber terrorism that could endanger everything from banking institutions to military installations.

The Secret Service has assigned half a dozen of its Los Angeles agents to work with various Southern California police and prosecutorial agencies. With new offices taking up almost an entire floor of a 7th Street skyscraper, the task force’s ranks are expected to swell with detectives from the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, private security experts and academics.

“The important thing is everyone working together,” said agent J. Keith Helton, a special assistant to Nagel, “because no one can do this alone.”

To that end, Helton said, the task force has a simple philosophy: “Everyone checks their egos at the door.” Even the group’s logo, of the downtown skyline, lacks the emblem of any law enforcement agency.

That is more than mere symbolism, said Agent Don Masters, another special assistant to Nagel and supervisor of the task force. Law enforcement’s ability to prevent cyber terrorism and investigate electronic crimes hinges on interagency cooperation, he said. Depending on the crimes uncovered, prosecutions will be conducted by county or federal attorneys.

The importance -- and intricacy -- of such work is hard to exaggerate, according to law enforcement officials.

Said Sheriff Lee Baca, when the task force was launched: “High-tech investigations require an incredible knowledge. None of us 10 years ago would have ever imagined we would have to take apart computers ... to prosecute some pretty sophisticated criminals.”

Ron Iden, who heads the FBI’s Los Angeles field office, said that last year, 150 million Americans -- and 500 million people worldwide -- used the Internet. “As we become increasingly reliant on computers and the Internet,” he said, “we become increasingly vulnerable to criminals, terrorists and foreign enemies who would steal money or proprietary information, attack a vital infrastructure or engage in information warfare -- and these crimes can be committed without ever setting foot on U.S. soil.”

He said a recent survey found that 90% of businesses had reported computer intrusions in the preceding year and that 80% of those companies had suffered financial losses.

The FBI has also seen a significant emerging problem with electronic identity theft followed by fraud and even extortion. In one case, Iden said, dozens of “cyber criminals” conspired to steal data from computers in American businesses, then defrauded the companies of more than $100 million. Among their uses of the data was extortion by threatening to release the stolen data on the Internet. Several arrests have been made in the case.

The U.S. attorney’s office has been actively involved in prosecuting cyber criminals since “the Internet became a household word,” said U.S. Atty. Debra W. Yang, chief federal prosecutor in Los Angeles. Hers is one of 13 U.S. attorney’s offices in the nation with a specialized team of prosecutors, Yang said. This computer crimes section focuses on Internet fraud, computer intrusions and cyber terrorism and such offenses against intellectual property as software piracy.

Against that backdrop the Secret Service is launching the new task forces in San Francisco; Las Vegas; Chicago; Boston; Miami; Washington, D.C.; and Charlotte, N.C.; in addition to Los Angeles.

“Our goal is to keep our community and nation safe,” Nagel said. “This task force is about sharing information and resources in an effort to enhance our strengths and minimize our weaknesses against those who would do us harm.”