A former technology company executive charged with hiring hackers to attack a competitor's Web site has joined the FBI's most-wanted list, the latest sign of the federal law enforcement agency's growing interest in cyber-crime.
In August, a federal grand jury indicted Saad "Jay" Echouafni, 37, the former chief executive of Sudbury, Mass.-based Orbit Communication Corp., on charges of hiring the hackers to take down the Web sites of a large television services company called weaknees.com. The attacks, FBI investigators said, made the company's Web site temporarily unavailable, as well as the Web sites for Amazon.com and the Department of Homeland Security. The attacks caused more than $2 million in damage, prosecutors said.
Echouafni, along with 150 other defendants, was indicted as part of a Justice Department investigation code-named "Operation Cyberslam." But it was his vanishing act that earned him a spot on the most-wanted list, a group of more than a dozen people that includes some of America's most elusive criminals. It includes alleged embezzlers, an accused child pornographer and individuals indicted on drug and murder charges.
It is not the same list as the notorious "10 Most Wanted," which the FBI launched in 1950 to bring national recognition to some of the nation's most dangerous fugitives. Rather, it is a list that the bureau started almost five years ago on its Web site to nab suspects who are less of a threat or less prone toward physical violence, said spokesman Paul Bresson.
Echouafni joins the likes of Jie Dong, who is charged with defrauding Internet auction sites out of nearly $1 million. A federal arrest warrant issued in California said Dong stiffed more than 5,000 winning bidders and fled the country. The FBI says Dong may now be somewhere in China or Hong Kong.
Jerrod Lochmiller, 31, is charged with stealing at least $40,000 from 18 victims who thought they bought computers, televisions, musical instruments and other high-priced items at online auctions. Lochmiller also is charged with selling fake identification materials on the Internet.
Johnny Ray Gasca, an ex-convict and aspiring screenwriter, was indicted on charges of videotaping movies at private screenings in Los Angeles before they were publicly released. Gasca was scheduled to stand trial on Jan. 13, 2004, but one week earlier he eluded authorities after reportedly going to a local drugstore to buy cold medication.
The inclusion of these kinds of accused criminals throws weight behind FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III's decision to make cyber-crime one of the agency's top three investigative priorities, Bresson said.
This action sends a message that the bureau is doing more than just talking about cyber-crime, said Mark Rasch, former prosecutor in the Justice Department's computer crimes and intellectual property section and chief security counsel at McLean, Va.-based Internet security firm Solutionary.
"This is the first time we've had such a significant number of people being investigated and prosecuted for computer crime," Rasch said. "And we're only going to see this trend continue because investigators are getting better at identifying these individuals."