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26 state investigators become computer sleuths Classes focus on getting evidence to combat white-collar crime


WOODENSBURG - Twenty-six state investigators peered intently at their laptops on a recent weekday, searching for clues in the murder of a woman.

The victim's husband had returned home from a meeting to find his wife dead and his home ransacked.

The investigators had one clue, a computer found at the murder scene, and a one-hour deadline to retrieve evidence from the hard drive.

It wasn't going to be easy. It wasn't meant to be.

The murder investigation was a test for the investigators, who had spent the week attending the National White Collar Crime Center's Cybercop 101 class. The mock murder gave them a chance to apply what they had learned in the eight-hour classes.

"The goal is for them to get experience gathering evidence," said Ben Lewis, an instructor. "It's more of an idea of knowing what not to do and what to do."

Computer crime is a hot topic nationwide.

The crimes range from child pornography on the Internet to stealing records for fraud. Medicaid and Medicare, the government-run health programs, are some of the biggest victims of fraud that includes billing for fictitious patients, billing for services that weren't performed and exaggerating ambulance distances.

Other crimes include the 1995 multimillion-dollar calling card scam where a hacker tapped into telephone companies' computer records, obtained calling card numbers and sold the numbers to other people.

In 1996, the FBI formed a unit to investigate computer fraud and abuse. Federal agencies have received computer training for several years, but state departments haven't. That's why the National White Collar Crime Center began offering the class for state officials last fall. The center is funded by the U.S. Justice Department.

"We see computer crimes in embezzlement, gambling operations. ... It's a whole range of things that we see," said Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. "We have to make sure that when we have an arrest, we take the hardware and we don't destroy the evidence."

Curran's office sent several criminal investigators from its consumer protection, environmental crimes, securities and insurance fraud divisions. Maryland State Police investigators also attended the seminar at Camp Fretterd, a National Guard training camp near Reisterstown.

"The whole course is geared toward the fact that ... computers are what we're all bumping into. The more knowledge you have, the better off you're going to be," said Terry Collins, a Medicaid investigator for the attorney general.

In the class, instructors used computer-generated transparencies to teach everything from the basics of how a computer works to more complex tasks, such as identifying secret passwords.

They also focused on cellular phone fraud, Internet scams, securities fraud, illegal online gambling and legal issues for search and seizure.

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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