Top Secret Service agent helps kick off cyber-crime campaign in South Florida

Top Secret Service agent helps kick off cyber-crime campaign in South Florida

It was no secret why the top boss at the U.S. Secret Service was in South Florida to talk about electronic-based crimes such as identity theft and credit-card skimmers.

The region has earned the distinction of being a motherboard of sorts in electronic crimes, leading the nation in identity thefts and ranking high on other forms of cyber crimes such as child pornography and credit- and debit-card information thefts.

On Wednesday, U.S. Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan spoke to dozens of federal, state and local law enforcement officials based in South Florida during a special forum that was part of National Cyber Security Awareness Month.

The nationwide campaign, organized by the Department of Homeland Security, is designed to teach the public and private companies about the rapidly increasing number of cyber-related crimes.

“Sophisticated cyber-criminals pose a great threat to our economy and national security,” Sullivan told the crowd. “They have exploited the vulnerability in cyberspace to steal money and information.”

Homeland Security spokesman Nestor Yglesia said South Florida was chosen as a place to highlight the campaign because of the abundant crimes generated in the region.

South Florida has experienced a dramatic jump in reported identity theft incidents to the Federal Trade Commission — from 8,317 cases in 2007 to 17,668 in 2011.

Last year saw the number of identity thefts explode, with claims jumping 76 percent in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties. South Florida reports increased from 184 per 100,000 population in 2010 to 324 per 100,000 population in 2011, according to the FTC.

As a result, the region is widely considered the identity theft capital with more identity thefts per capita occurring here than in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or any other large urban area of the country.

Sullivan did not say why South Florida’s numbers are so high, but experts have often pointed to the region’s large population of seniors, foreign-speaking immigrants, college students and part-time residents as ideal targets.

In addition to identity theft, South Florida has also made headlines for recent spikes in credit- and debit-card information theft through the use of illegal devices known as skimmers.

Miami Beach Detective Ricardo Arias, a member of the Secret Service’s electronic crime task force, demonstrated on Wednesday an array of skimmers that have been confiscated in the region in recent years.

The devices included simple card readers used by thieves working at bars and retail stores to sophisticated gadgets with cameras that can record PIN numbers at ATMs.

Arias said some of the devices can be purchased on the Internet for as little as $3,000 and many of the thieves operate from overseas.

“Unfortunately it’s been pretty prevalent in South Florida, but it’s a worldwide issue,” Arias said. “It is often difficult to know who they are, but they are opportunistic and organized.”

Nationwide, the Secret Service has made more than 1,1000 arrests on Internet-related crimes, said Sullivan. About 89 percent of stolen information in 2011 involved personal bank information obtained primarily by hacking into credit and debit cards, he said.

Federal officials said on Wednesday that fighting cyber crimes will involve making the public more aware of scams and having them be more careful with their personal information.

“It’s going to take a greater participation from all U.S. residents at their homes, at their workplace and in their communities,” Sullivan said.; 954-356-4605 or @GeoRodriguez on Twitter

How to secure your assets online

When in doubt, throw it out: Links in email, tweets, posts, and online advertising are often the way cyber criminals compromise your computer. If it looks suspicious, even if you know the source, delete it.

Protect your money: When banking and shopping, look for web addresses with “https://” or “shttp://,” which are more secure.

Make passwords long and strong: Combine uppercase and lowercase letters with numbers and symbols to create a more secure password.
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