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Many law enforcement agencies stretched thin

Profs delve into cyber-crime fighting resources in state

Starkville — While technological advancements have facilitated a greater ease in business communication and convenience, they’ve also generated some unwanted byproducts — namely, sophisticated computer-based crimes.

And according to recent research conducted by two Mississippi State University professors, Mississippi law enforcement agencies are challenged in their ability to address the burgeoning problem given available resources and training.

At a time when rates of most crimes are decreasing, computer crimes are on the rise, and law enforcement agencies feel that they are unprepared to respond, according to Kent R. Kerley and Peter B. Wood, MSU sociology professors who have been studying white-collar crime. Recently, the professors distributed a survey to sheriff’s offices in all 82 Mississippi counties, as well as to 22 district attorney’s offices and 20 of the state’s largest municipal police departments. More than half responded.

Additionally, a concurrent state telephone survey assessed citizen computer usage habits and attitudes about the potential for being a victim of computer crime.
The results that emerged were sobering. Kerley said that most law enforcement agencies felt that they did not have the resources or training to adequately investigate computer-related criminal activities. Among the most common crimes identified by law enforcement officials were Internet child pornography and identity theft.

Kerley said that among computer users, a high percentage reported a fear of being victimized by computer viruses, followed by security of personal information. Moreover, nearly 90% also reported concerns about issues of children being able to access pornographic Web sites.
During a recent MBJ interview, Kerley identified a host of challenges facing Mississippi law enforcement agencies on the issue, ranging from staffing to training to reporting, based on input from those agencies.

“Many respondents said that they felt understaffed and that they were not specifically trained in investigating some of these crimes,” Kerley noted. “Some said that even if they seized computers, they may not know what to do with them because they were not trained in computer forensics.”

Kerley added that the research also revealed a sense of confusion regarding proper reporting channels and authority for investigation.

The professors said that while their surveys were undertaken in an effort to develop baseline data about attitudes and issues related to a rapidly-growing segment of crime in Mississippi, they plan to expand their research via a national survey. Too often, they said, technological advancements have occurred so rapidly that it’s more unusual for a computer criminal to get caught.

“In Mississippi, we discovered that two-thirds of the law enforcement respondents said that they have no procedures or protocols for investigating computer crimes,” Wood said. “This reflects a national phenomenon.”

Attitudes regarding computer crime and the increasing level of sophistication of various technologies present ongoing challenges. Kerley said that offenders in white-collar computer crimes are more educated and proficient, making these crimes highly “skill-based” in comparison to other crimes. And despite some public perceptions, Kerley stressed that computer crimes are not victimless crimes.

In addition to his research at MSU, Kerley is among only 10 invited participants serving on a National White Collar Crime Center panel developing a national survey on issues that include computer crimes, pyramid schemes and fraud, among others. This University of West Virginia-based center is a federally funded nonprofit that promotes increased public awareness and research about the impact of white collar crime, Kerley added.

Kerley said that awareness is a key component in protecting oneself from computer-based crimes. Individuals should be proactive in updating computer security measures in terms of viruses and spyware and they should be cautious in determining the security of various Web sites. Families should also have a clear dialogue regarding computer usage and security. Kerley also recommended that consumers examine their bills carefully to determine unusual or extraneous charges.

“While there has not been a lot of research in this area, we know that the public has a high level of concern about computer crime,” Kerley concluded. “We hope that our research will help determine the extent of the problem while suggesting strategies for responding.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Karen Kahler Holliday at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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