NEW BRAUNFELS — If Al Capone were alive today, his weapon of choice might be the Blackberry, not the Tommy gun.
Malice and crime have new digital faces, but with sophisticated new tools, computer forensics are taking a digital bite out of crime in Comal County.
Through teamwork between the New Braunfels Police Department and the Comal County Sheriff’s Office, one national fraud ring that was using credit card fraud to steal in 13 states was broken using GPS technology digitally embedded into their transactions.
“I’d say it’s luck, but it’s great police work on the part of our officers,” said Det. Zach Armstrong of the NBPD.
And when a New Braunfels woman’s ex-boyfriend hacked into her Facebook.com and e-mail accounts last month, technology allowed Armstrong to pinpoint a suspect in the case.
“There’s really no such thing as true anonymity ... there’s always ways to track people,” Armstrong said.
And even though a cell phone is not a gun and texts are not bullets, they can surely be instruments of crime.
“Cell phones are used in every type of criminal activity,” said Armstrong, who estimated that he does one phone search a day, either consensual or with a warrant.
“A cell phone is a criminal instrument. People who are doing right use it as a tool for their business. If you’re a criminal, that’s a tool for your business, too. A lot of your life is on that phone. And we want to know about it,” Armstrong said.
The agency can subpoena information to learn which computer was used to change a password.
“There’s a lot of federal help out there, but it takes time. Cybercrime is the largest kind of theft in the world,” describing the newest computer fraud that bilked thousands of dollars from job-seekers around the country.
“They have people responding to job openings, and then they imbed malicious software in the response.”
Tech-savvy look-outs in even petty crimes are now using silent cell-phone texts to notify fellow criminals if the law is on the way.
In a home burglary ring, Comal County thieves recently used their cell phones to make visual notes about prospective houses, and then to videotape themselves at the scene, sort of “trophy pictures” of their proudest work.
That’s where FRED comes in.
The newest crime fighter in Comal County, FRED is sleek, black and silver, a tower of power. FRED is the Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device.
FRED became available through a $12,000 grant, with the help of Comal County Sheriff Bob Holder, Criminal District Attorney Jennifer Tharp and the Comal County Commissioners’ Court.
FRED’s just a few weeks old — and a fresh, tangible reminder of the collaboration between local agencies.
“We all do the same job — we just wear different badges,” Armstrong said.
With just a little direction, FRED can image multiple suspect hard drives and cell phones in a forensic manner, creating a data base of every written word on the hard drive and cataloguing it with its own number so that subsequent key-word searches can pull up information in a matter of seconds.
“Stalking, improper photography, fraud cases, anything you can think of,” said Det. Brian Morgan, FRED’s human mentor.
Child pornography, financial fraud, meth empires or marijuana farms, all are susceptible to FRED’s inquiring mind.
And FRED wants to know.
While all that may take FRED five to 10 hours, depending on how loaded up the suspect computer is, it’s much faster than the old procedure of sending the drive out to another agency. Often it took months when suspect equipment had to be sent out to the Secret Service, ICE or FBI offices in San Antonio or Washington D.C.
With FRED’s help, cell phones can be digitally dissected in deceased-person investigations, to determine what the individual’s most recent activities were.
GPS can identify where pictures were taken, where texts were sent from. And sophisticated new recovery tools can unearth deleted pictures from cell phones and cameras.
“It’s definitely exciting when you find something you’re looking for,” Morgan said.
The National White Collar Crime Center will hold a fast-track program in Comal County. Participating law enforcement officers will get three weeks of education over four months.
And as a November New Braunfels case showed, harassment by text message - or chat, e-mail or other electronic form - is now a crime in Texas.
New Braunfels police pursued a suspect who sent a text threatening the recipient with bodily harm.
The law that made it a criminal offense - ranging up to felony status - went into effect on Sept. 1, 2009. That - and electronic trails angry texters might not think of when they fire off blistering missives - give police tools for protecting the public.
Good news for the harassment victim, bad news for the malicious text-sender.
“Something like that, we’re able to detect where it came from and file a case with the District Attorney’s office,” said Lt. Michael Penshorn.
“People may just want to keep in mind, it’s no different than making a (threatening) phone call. They’re never actually anonymous,” he said. “Initially, the (victim) wasn’t sure who it came from, but we do have a suspect in the case.”
Det. Zach Armstrong had a personal experience that helped him see the importance of digital forensics.
“I was a victim of identity theft. I still don’t know how they got it, and it took me almost nine months not on my job to find out where the stuff was coming from - it was Chicago,” Armstrong said.
Someone applied for $150,000 in student loans with his identification. Because it takes so long to start repaying a student loan, the perpetrators had plenty of time to live off the proceeds and evade detection.
“Check your credit reports on a regular basis. That’s a huge deal,” he said.
In the meantime, there are things everyone can do to protect themselves from identify theft and malicious computer hackers, Armstrong said.
People shouldn’t shut down their computer’s protective software, he said.
“It’s there for a reason - it’s there to protect you,” he said.
“Develop a strong password - not your kids’ names, and use multiple letters and numbers in the combination. Don’t share that stuff - it’s no different from the PIN number on your ATM card,” Armstrong said.
“If you get something unsolicited, or something sounds too good to be true, it is. If it’s unsolicited, don’t respond to it,” Armstrong said.
“If people did that, we’d have a lot less work.
“For the most part, online banking is secure. The problem comes with human interaction,” he said.