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Victims as far apart as Macon and Tacoma may have been robbed or swindled by the same online criminal, but the authorities can figure that out only by processing the complaints nationally. By combining the schemes that are related, the center can come up with cases with high enough dollar amounts to warrant pursuing.
When enough information is amassed, the center works with state and local officials to take to the field for interviews, searches and arrests. One national action the center took, Operation WebSnare, has brought dozens of criminals to justice.
The center gets help in tracking crimes from the Merchant Risk Council, which was formed in 2000 to help make online commerce safer. The Merchant Risk Council’s 7,000 subscribers include online merchants and vendors who sell to those retailers, says Julie Fergerson, vice president and cofounder of ClearCommerce who serves as the Merchant Risk Council cochair.
Bringing more law enforcement agencies into the network that exchanges and analyzes information on cyber crime is one of the Merchant Risk Council’s goals, Brown says. Miskell’s work in Nigeria could prompt other law enforcement agencies to join the Merchant Risk Council, Brown hopes.
Fergerson and Brown hold up the partnership of the Merchant Risk Council and IC3 as a model for future relationships. The Merchant Risk Council prompted the IC3 to take action in West Africa because so many problems arise there. “That’s the place we complained loudest about,” Brown says.
Miskell, who cites information from the Merchant Risk Council as vital to his work as program manager for IC3’s effort in Nigeria, made his first trip to West Africa in February 2003. He and three other FBI agents spent a week training officers in a class he calls Cyber 101, the same course taught to law enforcement officers in the United States.
The investment in the trip shows the IC3’s commitment to attacking online crime at the source, says Miskell, who estimates the cost of sending an agent there at $20,000 for airfare, food and lodging-salary not included.
Shortly before Miskell’s group arrived, the Nigerian government had organized the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, an elite group of police officers and lawyers. That commission came into being because the Nigeria government could no longer ignore allegations of police corruption, Miskell says.
After that round of training, Miskell returned alone in December 2003 to help the police form liaisons with the local branches of international shipping companies, such as Federal Express, DHL and United Parcel Service.
That cooperation paid off last spring when Miskell made his third visit to Nigeria-this time to help make arrests. His group, which included several local officers, began its day by opening packages that had arrived in the country for delivery. Often, they’d open a container from one shipper, Fed Ex, for example, and inside find a box delivered by UPS to an address in the United States.
Next, the group took that package, piled into the War Wagon and drove to the address. Two plainclothes detectives hopped out of the vehicle and kept the building under surveillance while a third officer, under cover in a shipping company uniform, made the delivery.
Fake cashier’s checks
Once the recipient received the package and paid the tax, Miskell and two uniformed officers armed with AK-47s converged on the suspect to make the arrest. All told, the team arrested 17 and seized $1 million in fraudulently obtained merchandise and $2.5 million in bogus cashier’s checks. Prosecutions are under way, and Miskell anticipates returning to Nigeria to testify.
That kind of work, though only a beginning in the face of growing online crime, has prompted the Merchant Risk Council’s Fergerson to praise Miskell. “He puts his life on the line to fight e-commerce fraud,” she says. In fact, the Merchant Risk Council’s 15-member board of directors, which includes online merchants and vendors, picked Miskell as the first recipient of The Merchant Risk Council Law Enforcement Award. The FBI has recognized Miskell’s accomplishments, promoting him to head of a cyber crimes team based in Birmingham, Ala.
Miskell credits the Merchant Risk Council and IC3 with bringing together the information to make the arrests possible. Combining reports from multiple sources has allowed the groups to “learn and grow together,” Miskell says.