The Rise of the Digital Thugs

Computers crimes get more savvy as 'digital thugs' turn to extortion, attacks on competitors


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

In a pair of missives fired off on Feb. 3, 2004, 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 Mr. Videtto ignored his demands, the information would end up in e-mail boxes worldwide.

He also threatened to stymie the online operations of MicroPatents clients by sending salvo after salvo of Internet attacks against them, stuffing their computers so full of MicroPatent data that they would shut down. Another message about two weeks later warned that if he did not get the money in three days, the war will expand.

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 Central Intelligence Agency to put a face on the stalker. The manhunt, according to court documents and investigators, led last year to a suburban home in Hyattsville, Md., its basement stocked with parts for makeshift hand grenades and ingredients for ricin, one of the most potent and lethal biological toxins. Last March, on the same day that they raided his home, the authorities arrested the stalker as he sat in his car composing e-mail messages he planned to send wirelessly to Mr. Videtto. The stalker has since pleaded guilty to charges of extortion and possession of toxic materials.

What happened to MicroPatent is happening to other companies. 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 who are 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 in both the numbers and severity,'' said Frank Harrill, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation 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.

Though the number of corporate stalkers appears to be growing along with the number of payoffs to online extortionists quantifying the dimensions of the threat is difficult. Last fall, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh published a study of online extortion involving small and mediumsized businesses, saying that the Internets 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.

This content continues onto the next page...