UAB cybercrime fighters help extend long arm across Alabama

He may not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but Gary Warner, the director of research in computer forensics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, helps nab cybercriminals faster than a speeding bullet. Warner, whom FBI Special Agent Dale Miskell describes as "an online superhero," has for the last five years teamed with the bureau to investigate computer crimes in North Alabama and nationwide, busting dozens of bad guys in the process.

Just as he's helped the FBI in recent years, Warner and the computer forensics laboratory he leads on the UAB campus are now ready to extend a unique brand of investigative know-how to law enforcement agencies throughout Alabama as part of Operation Swordphish.

"Operation Swordphish partners our UAB cybercrime laboratory with the Alabama Department of Public Safety and Alabama District Attorneys Association with the goal of prosecuting state and local cybercrimes," Warner says.

"This program is a great example of combining the knowledge within a leading educational institution, in this case UAB, and the capabilities of the law enforcement community to address a global problem," says U.S. Senator Richard Shelby, whose office secured $3 million in federal funds for the program.

Operation Swordphish is ramping up its efforts this fall. It was established to help solve the more than 6,900 Alabama cybercrimes that go uninvestigated each year because they don't meet the federal threshold for investigation, and local law enforcement often does not have the resources and/or experience to make the case.

"These are smart criminals who are operating below the federal radar, stealing $10,000 or $15,000 from victims at a time instead of millions, which would lead to a large-scale investigation," says Randy Hillman, the executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association.

Hillman says the state now has an epidemic on its hands.

"Criminals are committing crimes that are going uninvestigated, and we need to fill the void," Hillman says.

This is where Warner and his team of student researchers come into the picture with Operation Swordphish.

"When local law enforcement isn't equipped or trained for a cybercrime investigation, they will be connected to UAB, and we will provide the expertise they need, whether it's tracking down the source of an online financial scam or writing warrants to obtain evidence stored on computers," Warner says.

Special Agent Miskell says Warner undoubtedly will help departments throughout Alabama close more cases - and do so more efficiently than ever before.

"Based on our FBI experiences with the UAB, Gary and the student researchers can wrap the package up in a nice little bow by identifying the suspect, the website domains and other vital information. He passes it on to investigators who can then be very exact in their efforts to catch the criminals," Miskell says.

A national model

UAB's Operation Swordphish responsibilities also include an education component. Warner and the UAB departments of Justice Sciences and Computer and Information Sciences, which support Warner's cybercrime laboratory, will begin a statewide awareness campaign in the fall of 2010.

"The idea is to make citizens aware of the threats and let them know that there are people ready to help them if they've become a victim of cybercrime," Warner says.

The education component also will target law enforcement offices with the development of training tools to address the most common problems experienced in their cybercrime investigations.

"We'll be measuring and tracking the most frequent questions that we get from law enforcement and will build training modules for just in time training for investigators throughout Alabama," Warner says.

Miskell says he'll be watching his cybercrime-fighting sidekick and Operation Swordphish closely as will law enforcement offices all over the country.

"I think that once this project gets up and running and the citizens of Alabama begin benefitting, other states will see Operation Swordphish and mirror it," Miskell says.

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