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Later this month, 600 prosecutors and police officers from around the world will converge in Monterey, Calif., to trade tips on catching high-tech crooks. The event, sponsored by the Silicon Valley chapter of the High Technology Crime Investigation Association, will cover everything from swiping passwords to hacking with iPods. Among those attending will be prosecutors from the high-tech crime unit of the Santa Clara County district attorney’s office. Driven by the depth of industry in Silicon Valley — and the creativity of its inhabitants — the office has long been at the cutting edge of computer-crime fighting. Ten years ago, that often meant tracking thefts of intellectual property or microchips. Increasingly, though, criminals apply high-tech methods to all sorts of crimes, from identity theft to frauds of all stripes, and staying on top of the latest trends and transgressions is a full-time job for Santa Clara, Calif.’s five-lawyer unit. “It’s a little like looking into the attic with a flashlight,” said the unit’s head, Santa Clara Deputy DA James Sibley, who will be leading a seminar on piracy at the Monterey meeting. “Technology is constantly changing. It’s always different. We’ll have a crime this week that we didn’t have last week.” The unit’s deputies receive a minimum of 40 hours of training a year, getting briefed on such things as the latest computer technologies available to consumers and how they might be used in a crime spree. “We are geeks,” Sibley said. “We do so much training, but we have to.” They’ve also had to adapt. A decade ago, it was the cops who went out, did the investigating, made the arrests and then presented the case to the DA. Now, due to the complexity of the crimes, deputies are often pulled in at the investigative stage. One of the first questions that usually crops up is: “What the hell are we going to charge this guy with?” said Lt. John McMullen, one of the unit’s investigators. After prosecutors figure that out, they help identify the kind of evidence required for a conviction. It isn’t easy, said Joseph Reader, a deputy in the office’s real estate fraud unit who won a conviction earlier this year with assistance from the high-tech team. “You [can't] tell yourself, ‘Here’s the crime and here’s how you document it,’” Reader said. Prosecutors often have to step back, look at the big picture and conduct further investigation before making a decision. “They are complicated cases,” agreed Dale Lohman, a deputy in the major fraud unit. “The more we dug, the more we’d find � You have to work backwards.” When Santa Clara prosecutors aren’t in training, Sibley said his team is constantly surfing the Internet, looking for new trends. Sibley said he likes to joke with his colleagues that “if you aren’t in Fry’s every week, you aren’t doing your job.” In addition, prosecutors here also spend a lot of time lobbying Sacramento lawmakers and are responsible for crafting a lot of the penal code pertaining to high-tech crimes. REACT, a state-funded, high-tech crime task force that represents five counties in Northern California, including Santa Clara, reported 300 high-tech crimes, totaling $98 million in monetary losses, were investigated last year. The Santa Clara DA’s high-tech unit is considered one of the best equipped at handling these cases, especially when it comes to theft of intellectual property and trade secrets. “We are one of the pioneers in this field,” said supervising deputy DA Julius Finkelstein, who was the prosecutor in the Avant Corp. criminal trade-secrets case, which ended with a plea deal in 2001. “We have major chipmakers here. The whole industry evolved here. A lot of the crimes happened here,” Finkelstein said. The big problem 10 years ago, Finkelstein added, was trying to persuade a jury that a high-tech crime was a punishable offense. “The idea that someone could be prosecuted for stealing information was a hard concept to explain,” he said. “Now it is more accepted,” but it still can be a tough sell. Because this field is still relatively new, it’s hard to find laws to help guide investigators through the process, Sibley said, adding that he routinely gets calls from police departments wondering how they should classify these crimes or asking for assistance with search warrants. SNOWBALL EFFECTS Jonathan Fairtlough, a deputy with the Los Angeles DA’s high-tech crime unit, said generally a case will start with a single complaint or phone call, and then “you just learn as you go.” When Fairtlough first started investigating high-tech crime in 2000, he had just 11 cases. That number is now close to 150, he said. On some of Los Angeles’ more complex cases involving trade secrets and intellectual property theft, Fairtlough said he routinely turns to his colleagues in Santa Clara County for assistance. He isn’t alone. “A lot of folks there have a passion for these types of cases,” agreed Robert Morgester, a deputy with the state attorney general’s office in Sacramento. “They will take the time and effort to understand what happens. I like to think of them as full-service.” Today, the big push is identity theft. Morgester said he’s even overheard inmates on prison buses swapping ideas for scams. “The one thing that we didn’t have in the mid-’90s was the Internet,” Morgester said. Now it’s like, “Why rob a bank when I can go to eBay and steal 34,000 identities?” In one illustrative case that Santa Clara prosecutors helped investigate, a South Bay real estate agent was convicted in June of a large-scale identity theft and real estate fraud scam. John Shaw would buy and sell property under identities he stole from his clients. Shaw’s cover was blown when one victim went down to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a license and was told that someone had already applied for one under his name. The investigation involved multiple agencies, and prosecutors spent lots of time sorting out the possible charges and required evidence before Reader tried Shaw and his wife, Mary Wu, in June. “More and more, identity theft is an aspect of the overall crime,” which usually involves theft of a large sum of money, Reader said. “Even the common criminals are getting a lot more savvy.” SMART CRIME? Smarter criminals mean the cases are getting more complex. The state attorney general’s office has been stepping in to tackle some of the bigger ones that transcend county and state boundaries. Merle “Bud” Frank, a deputy attorney general, says he handles between 20 and 30 such cases a year, many of them based out of Santa Clara County. “All kinds of things come up with these crimes,” Frank said, noting that the best investigations are often a “team” effort. Sibley said his office doesn’t mind the help. “We are a target-rich environment,” he said. “We don’t have to fight over cases.” In February, Frank successfully prosecuted three men considered the masterminds behind an identity theft ring in San Jose, Calif. The trio was convicted of 105 felony charges, ranging from conspiracy to possession of counterfeiting equipment and stolen property. An investigation by the San Jose Police Department’s High Tech Crimes Unit revealed that waitresses at various restaurants around the South Bay were recruited to “skim” customers’ credit cards into portable storage devices. The personal information was used to create counterfeit cards. Prosecutors put the losses at $100,000 and believe there were dozens of victims. Identity theft has become a major concern in Southern California, too, reports Fairtlough. With any new technology or crime trend, “a person will always find a way to cheat, steal or hurt someone else with it,” Fairtlough said. “It’s just a part of human nature.”

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