CLEVELAND - Here, I thought, is one area where Hollywood has it right.
Deep in the heart of the Cleveland division of the FBI is the Emergency Command Center. It's a room with a bunch of tables, a series of computers and phones on each one, and lots of big screen TVs on the walls. You’ve seen rooms like this on “24” and “The Bourne Ultimatum.”
When the FBI conducts an operation in the world – a raid or arrests – the operation actually happens in two places at once. While agents are in the field carrying out the operation, there are agents back at the bureau monitoring it. The agents in house and in the field are often on video and audio feeds.
This room serves a specific purpose. The Emergency Command Center ensures agents and analysts are all on the same page. They need to be, because operations are happening in real time. They are all communicating, which is the most critical factor during an operation. Lastly, the chain of command is active so orders and feedback are instantaneous.
Special Agent in Charge of the Cleveland bureau, Stephen Anthony, said they even use microwave technology for live signals from the field back at the base.
I thought I could relate to that.
I’m in the FBI Citizens’ Academy on behalf of my position with WEWS Cleveland. As a show producer, I’m in the control room of the TV station with a headset on, talking with live crews in the field and the show’s director to make sure communication and chain of command are intact during live shows on NewsChannel5.
The Cleveland FBI uses this room about once a week for operations. In fact, one of the most recent times it would have been full of agents on the phones, watching the live feed on the TVs and sharing data on their computers, was the arrest of five suspects accused of plotting to blow up a bridge in Brecksville.
Although, in full disclosure, this room was brightly lit. On “24” and “The Bourne Ultimatum,” those agents operated in moody, grim, pitch black rooms. (Our control room at work, though, is dark. But, I am in the TV biz after all.)
The Cleveland FBI uses the Emergency Command Center on potentially violent operations, such as kidnapping cases, or for arrests in more traditional cases, like white collar crimes.
“White collar crime was generally the bread and butter of any FBI office,” said Special Agent Derek Kleinmann, who specializes in such investigations.
These crimes can consist of mortgage rescue schemes, commodities and securities fraud, questionable hedge funds, market manipulation, investment fraud and insider trading.
Who are these criminals? They all aren’t high profile monsters like Bernie Madoff, but they have a lot in common with him.
We’ve seen white collar crime dramatized in movies like “Wall Street” or on shows like “Damages” and, well, “White Collar.” Kleinmann said one thing Hollywood has right about white collar crime, the motive is always the same. Greed.
One similarity is opportunity; these people most likely work at a financial company and simply have the ability to exploit other people’s money.
Another factor is the cause; some incentive or pressure drives these people to fraud, and it’s usually some pressure in their personal life.
The last factor is their rationalization. Growing up, we all learn stealing money is wrong, but the white collar criminal may tell himself that no one is really getting hurt. Kleinmann said, many people tempted with money may try anything if they don’t have someone over their shoulder.
The reality is that these crimes do hurt people. Kleinmann said the hardest part about his job is having to tell some grandmother that her life savings is gone. And there’s no way to get it back.
How rampant is white collar crime? There are probably about 200 FBI agents who can handle these type of investigations. For perspective, there are about 200 hedge fund firms in New York City alone.
“I was blown away by how much fraud there was,” Kleinmann said.
The only thing more rampant that white collar fraud might be cyber crimes.
“We’re always playing catch-up,” said Special Agent Joe Russ, who specializes in cyber crime investigation.
The Internet Crime Complaint Center released just released its internet crime report. In 2011, there were more than 314,000 complaints about online criminal activity. That’s a 3.4 percent increase over 2010. At least, 7,304 of them came from Ohio.
Once these crimes are laid out for you, they’re quite terrifying. Russ said, if you have an electronic device, anyone can reach into your home. Cyber crimes are simple, low cost, they can happen fast, and the criminals can almost bank on anonymity.
In fact, novice cyber criminals can simply search and download hacking programs online.
Cyber crimes can be performed in a variety of ways, including phishing, spam, and spyware.
More than two million computers are infected with keylogging software. Keylogging is when spyware program logs every keystroke you make. Eventually, you will pay a bill online or buy something on eBay
or Amazon, and when you type in your credit card number or password, it is logged and the hacker now has that information.
In fact, I was hacked in the past few weeks. I spotted my previous netbook was infected because the internet browser did not perfectly fit into the window any longer. I was probably looking at the hacker’s browser on my netbook. It was a very subtle change the average user might not notice. (Ironically, this was something I knew to look for after reading “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” – a novel about a computer hacker.)
So, that night, I bought a new netbook and immediately changed all my passwords. Good thing, too.
“Cleaning up your identity after someone stole it is a very lengthy process, even if you catch it early,” Russ said.
One thing that everybody can do to protect their selves before their accounts get hacked is to freeze their credit for as long as they want through TransUnion or Equifax.
One of the most common complaints is an FBI-related scam. In these cases, a criminal poses as the FBI to defraud victims. Beware those emails.
But it’s not just personal computers that can become infected. Some hackers can infect an entire network, and that could mean thousands of computers. Russ said one software company realized its entire network was compromised. It had to scrap its entire system and rebuild a new one from the ground up.
With cyber crimes, the FBI often plays catch-up. It’s the complete opposite for domestic terrorism.
“We have to prevent and preempt terror attacks without violating civil rights,” said Supervisory Special Agent Mike Paul, who specializes in domestic terror investigation.
White collar and cyber crime investigations involve months of research and number crunching. It’s a different environment in the domestic terror realm. This area is a task force and it’s charged to collect and take action on intelligence.
Domestic terror plots can target people, symbols, or transportation, including aviation, maritime, and rail service.
If a person or group is linked to an extremist ideology, has some criminal activity, and has recently made some sort of violent threat, there’s a good chance an actual plot may be in the works.
Some of the most well known extremist groups include white supremacists, militias, sovereign citizens, or black separatists.
The FBI also trains agents to handle different threats differently. There are several kinds of weapons of mass destruction, and agents would treat a chemical threat different than they would a nuclear one.
In the wake of international and domestic terror attacks, the FBI has put many tripwires in place to catch these plots before they can be carried out.
For instance, a U.S. citizen who lives in an apartment yet buys a preposterous amount of fertilizer from Lowe’s, might get someone’s attention.
One academy classmate asked Paul if searching for bomb making on the internet could hit a tripwire. Paul said knowing about that type of information would typically require a search warrant.
But you might get pop-ups for fertilizer deals in your browser. What the FBI doesn’t know, Google just might.
[ Look for Colin McDermott’s weekly write-up on his experience at the FBI Citizens’ Academy over the next several weeks.]