Wednesday, February 4, 2009

On Cybercrime

Felicia Donovan (left) is a law enforcement technology and cyber crime expert with over ten years of law enforcement experience. She’s assisted in Computer Forensics cases and has been recognized by the FBI for her work. She’s also the author of The Black Widow Agency series of mysteries.

Kristyn Bernier (incognito) is a detective with fifteen years experience who specializes in Internet crimes and undercover work. She is an investigator with the Northern New England Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and has received recognition for that work from the US Dept. of Justice.

I met them when I was researching Teaser, which is about teenage girls getting into trouble on a social networking site, and they provided me an incredible education into the dark side of Cyberspace. Now they have co-authored a new book, a tremendous resource for everyone from parents to mystery authors: CYBER CRIME FIGHTERS: TALES FROM THE TRENCHES, published by Que Pearson Publishing.

JAN: You two have worked with cyber crimes a long time; tell me when and howyou decided to write a book together.

FELICIA:: I couldn't get her out of my office. :) Seriously, it was Kristyn who gave me the idea for The Black Widow Agency series so I knew she was creative. Kristyn says she thought I was on drugs when I pitched the idea to her. I recall drinking, but that was the extent of it.
I just thought with our combined talents, experience and vision, it would be a perfect writing team. And so it was...

KRISTYN: Specifically, I asked her if she was on crack when she asked me to do this book - I investigate computer crimes, but my specialty is the behavior of the bad guys and digging for info, certainly not techy computery things - Felicia tears her hair out when I just reboot for the helluvit or get angry because my computer is too slow so I just repeatedly hit "control-alt-delete" until the thing shuts off...I am still trying to figure out how to use my digital voice recorder at work, and I am forbidden from using the fax machine and copier because I beat on them when they don't work quickly enough.

JAN: What are the cyber crimes covered in your book?

FELICIA: We cover it all - Cyberstalking, Sex Crimes, Drugs, Child Predators and Sexual Exploitation, Fraud, Identity Theft, Upskirting/Downblousing (Digital Voyeurism) and a bunch of really WILD stories like Diaper Boy, Pumpkin Man, and the Nurse who brought new meaning to the term "committed relationship." You really have to read it to believe it. As we always say, you can't make this sh...stuff up. And we didn't.

JAN: Which is the most common of these crimes?

FELICIA: As for the most common - Identity Theft and Credit Card Fraud.

JAN: Which are the ones that are most useful in a murder mystery plot?

KRISTYN: Because I am the sick/edgy one, I don't find fraud and id theft exciting - I think that social networking sites, dating sites and chatrooms are the fun things to throw into a murder plot. Anything deviant means good times in a story!Actually, an important piece of the puzzle in the murder of two Dartmouth professors was that an investigator used the Internet to track down who had purchased the sheathed knife used in the slayings. The knife led to the suspects that were ultimately convicted of the murders.

JAN: What are cell phone crimes?

FELICIA: These days, the biggest crime is kids sending nude pictures of themselves or their friends to each other. Oops! That would be "Distributing Child Pornography" if the kid is underage and is a very serious offense, but I'll let Kristyn elaborate on that one.Cell phones have taken over as the new cyber crime portal because they are mini-computers. Child porn is being traded big time as are fraudulent transactions. Another new cyber crime is "Vishing" or "Voice over Phishing." Victims receive a text message to their cell phone saying their bank account has been comprimised and that they need to call an 800 number (which is a fake) to unlock their accounts so they won't be charged for the fraudulent transactions. They call, give all their info and their accounts are then emptied out.

KRISTYN: Kids just don't think when they are taking pics of themselves or their friends with cell phone cameras and then shipping them off into cyber land. Adults don't think either...there are documented cases of teenage couples who have taken videos of themselves engaged in sexually explicit behavior, and then they break up, and as revenge the videos wind up on a website somewhere. Making, possessing or distributing sexually explicit images of a child under the age of 18 is a federal crime. Don't forget that cell phones are also used in stalking and cyberbullying.

JAN: What crimes are going on in social networks like MySpace and Facebook? And is Facebook safer than MySpace?

FELICIA:- K's baby but I'll say that no site is safer than another. What makes a site safe, especially social networking sites, is parents being aware of what the kids are doing on it. Understand that Kristyn maintains (and I maintain) bogus accounts on every social networking site. If we can have fake accounts, so can the bad guys - and they do. Although I do look stunning in the photo...

KRISTYN: Facebook has better safeguards, however if a child allows everyone who contacts them to have access to their page, then it doesn't matter. Parents should regularly be checking their child's site - ask for your child's password. Quite frankly, I find it disturbing that people, children and adults, spend so much time on these sites. The more info people put online, the more at risk they place themselves.

JAN:Which are the toughest cyber crimes to investigate or prosecute?

KRISTYN:- In my opinion, child exploitation. They are emotionally draining to investigate, the bad guys are constantly coming up with new ways to get away with the crimes, and there are so many victims out there that have not been identified. Once the image is sent out into cyberspace, it can never be pulled off, and these kids are re-victimized forever. It is difficult to put a child victim through a trial, and in my opinion, the punishment is never severe enough for these predators. I have many inventive punishment ideas, however they would all violate the Constitution.

JAN: Kristyn, tell us the patience and creativity required to ferret out pedophiles on the web.

KRISTYN: I prefer to call my creativity "random neural misfiring", which never stops!!!! Undercover computer cases are similar to undercover drug deals - I am lucky enough to be whacky and have the ability to think on my feet - when I am undercover, I am essentially a professional liar who is able to keep track of the stories I come up with as I am talking or chatting. I did a prostitution sting last year, and while I even surprised myself with some of the nonsense I was able to quickly rattle off on the phone with the "johns", I had the guys I work with on the floor laughing at the lines I came up with!

JAN: Kristyn, tell us the difference between To Catch a Predator and the real life police work that goes into building a prosecutable case against a pedophile.

KRISTYN: Don't get me going! In my opinion, the show has made it more difficult for us to do our jobs. The show was intended to sensationalize the crime of child exploitation for television ratings, and the perps have used what they learned on the show to become better at not getting caught by law enforcement. We now have more hoops to jump through because of this show, and the harder it is for us to catch the bad guys, the more time they are running free on the internet victimizing children. Personally, I think the show was irresponsible. You can make parents aware of the issue without making a circus out of it.

JAN: Do you have any advice for parents on cyber bullying?

KRISTYN: Awareness, supervise, monitor, open communication with your children, check in regularly and make certain your kids know they can come to you if something is bothering them. If your kid is being bullied, deal with it immediately through school, the offender's parent and your local police department. If your kid is bullying others, show no tolerance.

JAN: How to protect kids from predators?

FELICIA: Awareness is key! Parents can never lapse into thinking their kids are safe just because they're home upstairs rather than roaming the local mall. Keep the computer in a central area so it can be viewed by all. And do NOT let your child have a webcam. They provide a window into your child's private room.

JAN: Felicia: Give us some tips on how to protect ourselves and our identities on the web.

FELICIA: Limit what you put out there in the first place. For a cyber stalker, information equals power and dominance. Be aware of your "Digital Footprint" - the amount of information already available about you on the web.Kristyn and I will sometimes challenge each other to build the most complete dossier of a near total stranger to keep our skills sharpened. We can usually tell you the color and type of house they have, what car they drive, the dog's name, etc. It just never ceases to amaze me what people will put out on the Internet in chat rooms, postings, obituaries, hobby sites, etc. What you put out on the Internet, stays on the Internet.Never visit a weblink to complete a financial transaction if the link comes from an e-mail. If you need to go to ABC Bank, startup a new Internet session and type in
The Internet, though largely anonymous, is not innocuous.


  1. Very interesting information! I'm a retired crime analyst and technical investigator (CSI) so I can only say, "DITTO!" Even with my background, I find that I slip up occasionally. There's an "intimacy" to the social networking sites that lulls people into a false sense of complacency. Thanks for reminding even those of us who should no better!

    As for stolen ID - My Muse has been toying with the idea of a serial killer who steals his victims ID before murdering them. There are several variations to the stolen ID theme that could be edgy and deviant. *g*

  2. Penny,
    With that kind of background, I can't wait to read it!!

    Plus, I love deviance!

  3. I just saw a headline indicating MySpace had kicked 90,000 predators off its site. That's a scary number of people who presumably might be trolling for young victims.

    Good to see you and your writing partner here, Felicia! This is one terrific blog.

  4. Penny, we love "edgy and deviant." Feels just like home (ha ha).

    It's a pleasure to be here and many thanks to Jan Brogan for inviting us.

    I'm multi-tasking today, but not nearly as well as Hank, the Multi-Tasking Queen. (Bow, bow.)

    Felicia Donovan

  5. Gin, actually that was MySpace. Facebook took similar action a while ago. They both use a method of matching known predator profiles against their millions of subcribers.'s the problem in a nutshell. That's only if the predators are stupid enough (some are) to use their own info. As we said in the interview, both Kristyn and I maintain undercover profiles for the work we do and if we can get them (though we're the good gals), so can everyone else.

    It goes back to all we said about the necessity for parental awareness. That's really key to keeping kids safe.

  6. Thank you Jan for inviting us tom come play!!!!!

    I wanted to follow up on the 90,000 predators on MySpace: the scary thing is that there are many who still use their own names on these sites and are not kicked off - I just indicted one of them on numerous charges and have multiple counts of computer child pornography possession pending since we found nearly 700 images on his computer. This perp had pages in his own name on many social networking sites - he has been a public registered sex offender who molested a very young child. My fear is that we have victims out there who he met on these sites that we masy not ever identify.

    There are more than 565,000 registered sex offenders in the country with approximately 20% being non-compliant(meaning no one knows where they are). This is just the number of convicted perps - so imagine how many deviants who are out there on the Internet who have not been convicted or caught.

    Thank you for this wonderful opportunity to get our message to this wonderful group!

    Kristyn Bernier

  7. The question is: Have there always been THIS many sick people in the world? Or does the easy Internet access push borderline perverts over the edge?

  8. I just burst out laughing. Which is unpleasant because I'm eating ny lunch and talking on the phone at the same time I'm writing this.

    Multi-tasking queen? Whatever do you mean? (Plus, wouldn't the queen get someone else to do everything for her?)

    Penny, *love* the idea!

    And I'm doing a story right this minute on "probing" which is when bad guys get your credit card number and test their access to your account by charging tiny amounts, like 17 cents, to see if you'll notice.

    If you don't, your account is about to be besieged.

    ANd sorry this is so long--but Jan, even in the email I get at work, the number of ridiculous and angry emails I get has increased..a la "You are a cheesball reporter and I'm mad that you talked about me and I'm going to trash your stories whenever I can."

    I think it's because it's just so easy to bang out an email and hit enter. NO annoying pens and papers and stamps. No thought or mental filtering involved. Just do it.

  9. And oh, thanks for being here, F and K!

    And Gin..thanks for the kind words... awwwww..

  10. Jan -

    There have always been lots of sick people in the world, however the whacko with the weird fetish used to sit at home and think he was the only one. Now with the internet, that freak has a bizillion friends he can connect with that have the same fetish. They justify each others' behaviors. It's like NAMBLA (North American Man-Boy Love Association- sick freaks, but I digress) used to have a secret magazine that you had to actually go undercover to subscribe to. Now they have a website that anyone can visit and read about their pedophile support group.

    There are studies that point to the Internet as bringing pedophiles out of the closet at a much younger age because of the accessibility of child pornography and young victims on social networking sites. The guys that used to sit at home and use the JC Penney catalog as their erotica can now quickly access child sexual assault images and share them with others. They then jump to actually perping kids (Butner Federal Prison study is horrifying in that respect).

    I feel like the grim reaper.

    Hi Hank!!!! Love your work!

    Kristyn :)

  11. Hank, just an FYI that not only do they use tiny amounts for "probing," but another great scheme for testing the validity of accounts and whether or not they've been shut off is to make small donations to charities. Legitimate charities have been bilked out of millions of dollars because of bogus donations using stolen credit cards. In some respects, that just seems even lower...

  12. Sometimes, having a bad credit rating is a good thing. LOL.

    Hank, I really need to take the scissors away from my Muse. She keeps cutting out all these ideas and leaving them posted on my writing board when I should be editing, finishing the current WIP (I won't EVEN get into the ghosts hanging over my shoulder there!), plus a whole host of edits on my preternatural FBI agent series, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

    Jan and Felicia, deviant is my Muse's middle name. *bwahaha* And Multi-Task is my last. *looks sideways* It is!

  13. Sounds like Penny and I have the same Muse named "deviant" - Felicia can attest to that!!!!!!!

    And hats off to the multi-taskers of the world!!!!


  14. Thanks for coming by ladies and telling us all those interesting stories. I can't help but wonder now if there are things we're doing on Jungle Red that we should be more careful about....

  15. Roberta, you raise a very good point. Any of us who are in the public eye have to balance that public persona with the potential threat of someone with bad intentions.

    Because of my background, I tend to err on the side of caution, but I have to say that one of the best features of the Jungle Red Writers blog is that you all regularly share personal experiences which are fun and interesting. It's like going out with girlfriends for a drink and laughs. Your fans appreciate that. (I know I do.)

    Hank, you've been in the public eye for longer than all of us. Has this ever been an issue for you (if you feel like sharing) and how do you strike that balance?

  16. Huh. Well, I've aways had an unlisted phone number. I've never been in the phone book as Hank Phillippi Ryan.
    I use my legal name, which is different, on checks and bank accounts and credit cards and tax stuff.

    My voice mail messages say "I can't come to the phone right now" and when I'm on vacation, my messages don't change.

    When I was anchoring the weekend news in Atlanta, my home was broken into during the newscast. Of course-that's when the bad guys knew I wouldn't be home--because they could see me on live TV.

    (It actually turned into a funny story, given that they only stole one thing, and what it was--but I can't tell you on the blog.)

    I wouldn't say on the blog--oh, my husband and I will be in Timbuktu next week. Or--"how come my social security number begins with xxx?." Or wow, we love our new huge and valuable time machine.

    And I think--we're all pretty careful. What do you think?

  17. I truly believe that awareness is the most important thing. If people think before they post and are aware of making those safer choices, the chance of becoming a statistic in cyber crime is dramatically reduced. Of course, things happen, and unfortunately no matter how careful people are and how many precautions they take, you can be a victim of any crime. I guess the best analogy is that if you lock your car door, that will be a deterrent for the majority of people looking for the quick car break for some cash or valuables. Sometimes the locked car does not prevent the "smash and grab", but most times it does, and therefore it makes sense to take that simple precaution. The same thing goes with what we put on the Internet.

    I am working a case right now involving a bunch of 12 year old children who think it is ok to post pictures of themselves on social networking sites in seductive poses and their underware. And of course, this became a case of them now being solicited by older men online and through their text messages. One of them is being stalked. This type of situation can be prevented.

    Awareness, awareness, awareness...and some smart choices!


  18. We are living in an unprecedented social experiment.

    Never so much technology has been available to everyone.
    From a very young age, children start with a computer connected to the Internet then graduate very quickly in the name of parent security with mobile phones, they are the new generation of connected kids.
    For these kids social interactivity is happening through emails, SMS and of course what it is called “Social” sites with the likes of Facebook and others.

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