Gary Warner, a 1989 UAB graduate, recently left Energen to join UAB as director of research for computer forensics. 

Have you received an e-card greeting lately from a high-school friend you never heard of? What about some information from a financial institution asking you to “click here” to make changes to your account?
If the answer is no, your spam filter is enviable. Every year thousands of people are reeled in by these kinds of cyber-scams known as “phishing” – or online fraud in which identities are stolen. According to a survey by Integrated Payment Systems, 43 percent of us have been the targets of a phishing scam, and 5 percent have given up information worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

This type of illegal activity is hampering law-enforcement officials who don’t have an adequately trained cyber-crime workforce. Now, UAB is aiming to fill that void. The university’s Department of Computer Information Sciences (CIS) and the Department of Justice Sciences are jointly offering a graduate certificate program in computer forensics to train the digital detectives of the 21st century.

Gary Warner, a 1989 UAB graduate, recently left Energen to join UAB as the director of research for computer forensics. He has been on the frontlines of the cyber-crime war, aiding the FBI, FDIC, IRS, NASA and the National Credit Union Administration, among others. In doing so, he has built an international reputation for his work in targeting cyber-criminals.

“UAB’s faculty expertise will enable us to fill this critically important niche at the interface of justice science and computer science,” says Richard B. Marchase, Ph.D., vice president for Research and Economic Development. “This is an area we continue to invest in, as we see unmet needs in both research and training.  Mr. Warner is a great addition who will help us find opportunities to partner with both the private sector and government initiatives.”

Instant credibility
Warner’s addition to the staff brings instant credibility to the computer forensics program, says John J. Sloan, Ph.D., chair of Justice Sciences.

“He brings a wealth of experience to our program, and his reputation precedes him,” Sloan says. “When you can hire someone of Mr. Warner’s reputation you’re immediately established. We’re confident he can help get us established as a legitimate institution that’s involved in computer forensics training and education.”

Anthony Skjellum, chair of Computer & Information Sciences, says UAB’s efforts are “catapulted forward. He’s known by all the key people in security in the United States,” says Skjellum. “He will be a focus of significant activity, and that will have tremendous value to the students who work in these areas because they will have access to state-of-the-art research, research problems and contact with all of our collaborators from the law-enforcement industry and government.”

Warner says he is excited to be a part of UAB and have the resources available to create better tools to catch cyber-criminals.

“The faculty and staff here in these departments understand how to apply computer science to any kind of problem,” Warner says.

“The purpose of my job is to help law-enforcement officials present their problems to the brilliant computer science folks on our campus. We then can come up with solutions and teach, train or sell them to law enforcement.”

First project
The need for preventing and understanding cyber-crime grows each day. Warner is working with the National Cyber-Forensics Training Alliance, the Anti-Phishing Working Group and the FBI’s Digital Phish Net to write programs that help accelerate investigations. One of his first research projects is with Alan Sprague, Ph.D., in CIS. They are developing a Spam Data Mine, a powerful computer that will look at a billion spam e-mail messages to locate the biggest source. The computer can link an exorbitant amount of e-mails traced to one person, and the cyber-crime investigators will know they have their sender.

“The project still is in its early phases, but we demonstrated this for a major Internet service provider and they were blown away,” Warner says.

How could you?
One of the questions Warner often hears is “How could anyone fall for these scams?” There are a number reasons, and Warner hears them every day. Older citizens and those who are learning to use computers and e-mail often are victims of phishing. How about the secretary at a small church? She’s been hit, too.

“I’ve seen churches that have had their entire finances drained,” Warner says. “I’ve had relatives who have had their identities stolen in various ways, including phishing. Former co-workers also have been hit. And the bad part is that it’s hard to fight the crime. The FBI has thousands of people dedicated to fighting bank robberies, but how many are devoted to fighting cyber-crime? It’s not a big number, and part of the reason is they don’t have enough people who understand how it works.

“We’re hoping to change that with the computer forensics certificate program here at UAB.”