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Cyber sleuths operate in the digital realm Computer crime unit has paid dividends, local police say June 29, 2008

Posted by cyberpatrol in Cybercrime groups.
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The Eagle Tribune, 29 June 2008

By Jim Patten
Staff Writer

From the comfort of his North Andover home, Richard Disler trolled the Internet chat rooms, trying to hook up with underage girls.

That’s where the 43-year-old accountant met a girl named “Sara.” They began chatting online, and she eventually suggested a place where they could meet.

But Disler was arrested before the meeting occurred. That’s when he learned that “Sara” was actually Medford police Lt. John J. McLean, commander of the North East Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council’s Computer Crime Unit.

The Computer Crime Unit was also called in several years ago when a Vermont man traveled to Haverhill to have sex with an underage local girl he had met online. While in Haverhill, the man took nude pictures of the girl. He was caught by police, and the Computer Crime Unit retrieved the pictures from his laptop.

Haverhill Detective Capt. Alan Ratte said as criminals become more adept with their use of technology, the Computer Crime Unit’s expertise is critical to local police departments.

“I think the value of the unit speaks for itself,” he said.

North Andover police Detective Lt. Paul Gallagher agreed, calling the unit an “invaluable asset” to local police.

NEMLEC and its various specialized units serve 48 police departments and two sheriff’s departments in Essex and Middlesex counties. Formed in 2001, the seven-member Computer Crime Unit has investigated 800 cases, averaging between 135 and 200 a year, McLean said. It is based out of Medford and Peabody.

“Seventy-four percent of our case load is child exploitation,” he said. The rest are financial crimes, fraud, threats, and other crimes.

Officers assigned to the unit are drawn from various Massachusetts police departments. They must have good computer and investigative skills, and are sent to a series of training courses to become certified.

Computer crime investigations involve both forensic work and cyber investigations.

In forensic work, investigators examine the contents of computers that have been seized, and contact internet service providers to determine what information the user had on the computer, McLean said. Cyber investigations involve actual online work, tracking offenders and making undercover approaches to them, as in the Disler case.

Since the formation of NEMLEC’s Computer Crime Unit, there has been an explosion in technology and its uses, McLean said. Now the unit is getting involved in homicides, rapes, and other crimes because of what criminals are putting online or sending via their cell phones.

“The days of old where we just did kiddie porn and electronic crime are long gone,” he said.

Middlesex County Deputy Sheriff Tim McGibbon, a three-year veteran of the unit, says the effort is definitely worthwhile.

“More and more search warrants are including standard language to grab computers, cell phones, and PDAs,” he said. “Everybody knows everything is stored on computers.”

For all of their hard work, McLean said, he is concerned about the future of the Computer Crime Unit because it doesn’t have a steady source of funding.

“Without sustained funding, I don’t know what the future holds,” he said.

McLean said the unit depends on contributions from NEMLEC member communities and corporate donations for support. He said the costs for hardware, software, training and upgrades can reach about $75,000 a year, and that does not include the salaries of unit members, which are paid by their respective departments.

“That is a reasonable figure, but on the low end for the size of the unit and the number of jurisdictions we cover,” he said.

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