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Romania home base for EBay scammers

The auction website has dispatched its own cyber-sleuth to help police crack fraud rings.

December 26, 2007|Ian Wylie | Special to The Times

But Spasova knew the situation wasn't hopeless -- if local authorities could get more training and technical help.

Spasova, Bulgarian by birth, was educated at a Bucharest university and worked for the American Bar Assn. after the fall of communism in the region, promoting law reform in Moldova and Bulgaria. By the end of the 1990s, she was helping the association train law enforcement officers, judges and prosecutors to counter money laundering and the emerging threat of cyber-crime.

"Even in 2001, I was meeting judges who thought cyber-crime was someone stealing a computer," she says.

To give the Romanian police a fighting chance, EBay has donated computers, digital cameras and Internet connections. In her first 12 months on the job, Spasova established relationships with law enforcement officers in 24 of Romania's 42 districts and with local ISPs.

After she had won their confidence, Spasova and her small team began working cases with local police, matching evidence with data from EBay's Fraud Investigation Team database, such as the Internet protocol addresses, which are unique to each computer, used when a fraudulent auction was posted -- the sort of information that could help police pinpoint the scammers' location and begin surveillance. Through Spasova, the U.S. Secret Service also pitched in, donating forensic software and providing intelligence on fraud networks from its field agents.

But moving cases from the investigative to the judicial stage is another challenge. Spasova has been educating Romanian prosecutors too, explaining the nuances of phishing and other ways in which EBay accounts are compromised "so that when a prosecutor goes to a judge, he can use layman's language rather than terms the judge will not be familiar with."

In the last two years, Spasova and her colleagues have trained hundreds of prosecutors and a magistrate from each province on dealing with cyber-crime.

Virgil Spiridon, chief of the Romania national police's 4-year-old cyber-crime unit, rattles off some of the headway his team of 10 investigators has been making.

"Last year, 115 people were arrested and 831 crimes identified by police," Spiridon reads from his notebook. "We pressed charges against 61 people, identified 65 organized groups and 28 cases have been sent to the courts." He pauses and looks up.

"But we are running to keep up."

Most of the arrests to date have been of low-level couriers and money mules -- the bagmen, not the brains at the top, the FBI's Dickson said. Likewise, Spasova acknowledges the mammoth task that still lies ahead of the chronically understaffed and underfunded Romanian police.

"In Ramnicu Valcea, police raided a local Internet cafe and arrested kids doing fraud," she says. "But two hours later, they returned and found others had taken their place."

There are cultural and structural obstacles too. Under Romanian law, for example, victims of Internet fraud must send police a signed complaint and be represented at the hearing, which makes pressing a case on behalf of an American EBay customer nearly impossible.

"The judicial process can take forever," Spasova says. "Because the victims aren't present, there is no sense of immediacy. It's hard to know who to trust when the mothers and fathers of fraudsters know the mother and father of the judge or local politicians."

Romania has taught EBay a lesson: the importance of "addressing a problem region before we have a problem," said Matt Henley, senior manager of EBay's Technical Investigations and Analysis Group, who has spent time with Spasova in Romania. Henley says EBay is now alert to threats from "regions we weren't paying attention to" and, thanks to Romania, has a ready-to-deploy government-relations-in-a-box program it can take anywhere in the world.

Spasova has a new assignment from EBay: persuading Interpol, Europol and law enforcement agencies across Europe to communicate directly with one another and EBay on cyber-crime issues. But her jaunts to Ramnicu Valcea will continue.

"Even though these frauds are not happening on our platform, we're not showing a loss, and there are no victims in court . . . we're sending out a message that someone is taking care of this," she says.

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