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New Unit Targets Internet Crimes

July 13, 2001|KENNETH REICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Law enforcement officials from Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties, the FBI, Secret Service and U.S. Customs on Thursday touted the work of a new joint task force that targets high-tech crime.

The Southern California Regional High-Tech Crime Task Force has been formally building for two years, and can trace its origins back a decade. Its headquarters, in the basement of a county office building in Norwalk, opened March 8.

In a ceremony to introduce the program, officials said it has resulted in a better coordinated effort to fight such crimes as computer hacking, stalking, identity theft and child pornography on the Internet.

The center handles complaints forwarded by local police agencies that require special expertise or equipment to investigate.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said the work may be as simple as helping to cope with stolen credit-card numbers.

The task force also might be asked, for example, to thwart a stalker who uses computer databases to learn the address and Social Security number of a woman using her license plate number. Baca cited a similar case in which a woman was kidnapped and killed.

He said the public should still first call local police or the district attorney's office. The issues they raise may well be forwarded to the centralized facility.

The program remains, however, a limited effort. It has been funded initially with about $2.2 million, three-fourths of which is state money, and it is staffed by 12 full-time employees, supplemented by part-time assistance.

"This is an historic day," said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley. "High-tech investigations are taking flight."

Greg Totten, the chief assistant deputy district attorney in Ventura County, was more restrained. The effort is "understaffed and underfunded," he said.

He said it has dealt with 60 cases in six months. Hundreds of cases, however, go unreported by the public, he added.

Ronald Iden, special agent in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles division, said 100,000 people nationwide, 30% of them from California, have already gone online to contact the FBI's new national Internet Fraud Complaint Center.

Its Web address is http://www.ifccfbi.gov.

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