Everything that makes the Internet great for law-abiding folks is also a plus for criminals. Chris Duque and Chris Van Marter of the city prosecutor’s office have been on this beat from the Internet’s inception, and offer practical tips to avoid scams and other threats
Online sweetheart a lunch date with Steve Jobs scams, vacation rental fraud, revenge porn, cyberbullying … they’re the latest buzz phrases. In today’s Wild West — the global information superhighway — chances are you, or someone close to you, has been on the receiving end of at least one of these forms of Internet crime. And the potential for digital criminal behavior is ever-escalating. But thanks to the power team of Chris and Chris, that is Duque and Van Marter, from the city’s Department of the Prosecuting Attorney, Hawaii computer users are that much safer. Duque is a cybercrimes investigator in the department’s White Collar Crime Unit, and Van Marter is the unit’s deputy prosecutor.
Duque joined the police department in 1976, and as a detective began employing computers as a law enforcement tool in the wee dawn of the Internet era. By the time he retired from HPD in 2007, he had long been Hawaii’s law enforcement go-to man in the cybercrime arena.
His connections stretched globally, with the heads of investigations for companies from Microsoft and Google to Apple on his speed dial. Those connections even landed him and meetings with both Bushes, Clinton and Obama. Now, the city has snapped up the man who alternately refers to himself as a computer geek, cyber cop and social media butterfly. If there’s a scam hitting our shores, he’s the first to sniff it out. And a big one lately has to do with the world of real estate.
A vacationer arrives in Hawaii with his family and suitcases in tow. After a long flight, they’re ready to settle into the beautiful house they reserved online, and have already sent in the $5,000-or-so downpayment. But the woman who answers the door informs the family that the place is not a vacation rental, that she’s the owner and has no intention of renting. The homeowner has been caught unaware and the family has been swindled out of a chunk of cash and is left with nowhere to stay.
“This happens a lot,” says Duque. “We have fraudsters from the Mainland preying on the public. Say you have a beachfront home in Kailua. You have no intention of renting it out. I’m a scammer and I find pictures of your house online. I grab them and put them on Craigslist, saying I have a house for rent, and I post my contact info, not the real owner’s contact info.”
The best way to avoid such a situation is through a vetting process. Have someone physically verify the property and owner, notes Duque.
In a similar vein, fraudsters pose fake profiles on dating websites, generally to endear themselves to a potential victim and weasel money from them.
“People will go on there looking for companionship,” says Duque. “Elderly or even middle-aged people whose partner recently passed away are emotionally vulnerable, and if they’ve got money, predators prey on their weaknesses. I know a woman who sent $80,000 to one guy. We laugh about catfishing and Manti Te‘o, but dating sites are ripe for this. It’s the same when kids are victimized by online predators. The kids are looking for attention they don’t get at home, so they look online and they meet the wrong person.”
In the realm of cybercrime, online fraud is prominent (involving vacation rentals and sites that offer services and products), but rising fast is cyber harassment or bullying, which is often tied to workplace or domestic violence — whether the parties include disgruntled co-workers, spouses in the middle of a divorce, or siblings fighting over an inheritance. Revenge porn also falls into this category, and alongside it is the murky world of sexting, and its subsequent potential for extortion or online humiliation, and which gets ever murkier when juveniles are involved.
To nip these issues early on, one of Duque’s overriding passions is speaking to gradeschool kids, parents and kupuna to keep them out of cyber trouble. When Snapchat came out — the app where photos taken and shared disappear after a few seconds — Duque explained “Cell Phone 101 for Lolos” to students. Basically, info zinging across the Internet never disappears.
Sexual pictures shared between youths, if caught, is a misdemeanor offense. Once shared with a third party, it’s considered distribution of child pornography and becomes a felony.
“Kids think, ‘That’s my boyfriend or that’s my girlfriend,’ they don’t understand,” says Duque. “I talk to kids about ethical and social issues. You wanna see your parents naked online? Imagine when you have your 16-year-old and they Google and find you. How you gonna explain?”
Duque points out that the very features people enjoy about the Internet — global reach, anonymity and easy access — are the same features that put people at risk.
“Software programmers and hardware developers, they develop a product for the public. It’s meant to do one thing, butIlookatitandsaynowhow would the bad guy use it?”
At a speaking engagement once, Duque, who also gives national presentations on the landscape of cybercrime, was asked: “Knowing what you know, how can we protect ourselves from someone like you?”
As with any facet of the underworld, cybercrime — in the form of scams, in the form of child pornography — is lucrative and many a good man has been known to “go south,” as Duque puts it.
“I have a moral compass,” he says simply. And he just loves hunting down the hackers at their keyboards and putting them behind bars.
“You can’t put computers behind bars, you’ve gotta find the person sitting at the keyboard,” he says, which is no easy task, what with the ability to disguise IP addresses or hijack an innocent person’s computer for passing along or storing nefarious information. His most promising cases are where perpetrator and victim both live in Hawaii. Prosecuting becomes much more complex when the perp resides internationally.
As the hackers get sharper and their schemes more complex, Duque attends conferences about the future of cyber-crime and he hunts online, perusing law enforcement Listservs to keep lockstep with the criminals.
Some of the most recent developments he mentions are hackers’ ability to use computer programming to unlock electronic car and hotel room doors, as they rely on hackable formats, like infrared or barcodes. On the TV show Homeland, a character hacks into a target’s pacemaker and kills him, which Duque says is a valid theoretical possibility. With medical technology moving online, medical devices are increasingly susceptible.
“Just because we haven’t heard about it doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Hackers are always out there experimenting,” Duque says, adding, “Technology was meant to make our lives easier, but it also can make the bad guys’ lives easier, which means victimizing us.”
Such is the case when nude celebrity photos, or corporate or government information are leaked, which could equally point to a case of hacking or someone on the inside going south for financial gain.
Not to mention malware. As computer users get more hip to protecting themselves, viruses continues to evolve.
“If a hacker can’t get into a system, they’ll damage it with malware,” says Duque. “Behind every piece of technology is a human manipulating, receiving or inputting.”
One of the most insidious forms is ransomware, where you click on the wrong email attachment or hyperlink and suddenly your entire system is encrypted. The only way to restore your information is by literally paying ransom to the hackers, unless you regularly back up your system. But statistically, the majority of technology users don’t.
If you’re thinking this is more than you ever needed to know about technology, really, it’s only the infinitesimal tip of a continuously expanding iceberg. Though not yet widespread, hackers even have figured out how to install ransomware on cell phones.
With the incredible amount of power at hackers’ fingertips, the question must be asked: Is Hawaii vulnerable to cyberterrorism?
“Knock on wood,” says Duque. “We always talk about a digital Pearl Harbor, meaning is the US gonna be hit by a big cyberattack? Cyberattacks are ongoing. Because it’s cyber we don’t feel the effects, until it’s on a scale where we can see visible activity. For instance, if somebody hacks into our water purification system or damages our electrical plant. The ones we don’t see are the ones where a state entity is going after secret information about national security.”
Back to the microcosm of individual users: “To protect yourself, all you gotta worry about is that you’re not the low-hanging fruit,” says Duque. “Criminals are criminals because they’re lazy. There’s 3.8 billion people on the Internet at any given time. The chances that one of them can fall for a scam is good. You just don’t want to be that one in 3.8 billion.”
Duque posts cyber safety tips and updates about any new scams on his public Facebook page Cyber-Safety808.
Some common-sense advice he gives is that if you’re purchasing products or services from a website, read the terms of service and look for a physical address and phone number. Call them to verify the information on the website.
As far as computers themselves, cable is safer than Wi-Fi because Wi-Fi means information is traveling across airwaves and can be grabbed by unscrupulous people. But Wi-Fi offers mobility, so if you’re going to use Wi-Fi, Duque recommends not broadcasting your Wi-Fi name and programming your Wi-Fi to ask for a username and password.
If your computer does seem to be compromised, turn it off and contact a computer technician. If fraudulent activity is apparent, then contact HPD.
Any breach in cybersecurity involving child exploitation, major financial loss or national security will get the attention of the Prosecuting Attorney’s office.
“I’ m the muscle and Chris (Van Marter) is the brains,” says Duque. “Back in the day, we couldn’t catch cyber criminals because there were no laws for what they were doing.”
Van Marter’s legislative push changed all that. Duque does the groundwork and Van Marter prosecutes, based on legal precedence he has helped put in place for the purpose of public cybersecurity.
“I wrote (and testified in support of) bills that resulted in the increase of penalties for Hawaii’s computer crime laws including Computer Fraud, Computer Damage and Unauthorized Computer Access,” notes Van Marter.
He also wrote the bill that became Hawaii’s Revenge Porn law, and one that aids in the retrieval of records from other states.
“These laws have certainly made it easier to prosecute cybercriminals located in the United States,” he says. “The challenge remains prosecuting those cases that involve perpetrators or evidence located in a foreign country. Those cases make up about half of all cases reported to law enforcement. In those cases, we partner with federal agencies to investigate the matter.”
Van Marter also wrote a bill just last year to give Hawaii residents’ private communications increased protection against intrusive government search warrants.
Sometimes the high-tech direction the world is speeding toward threatens to undermine any simple-living ideal.
But, says Duque, getting away from it all means banishing yourself to self-sufficiency in the far woods, and backwoods dwellers have no compass for navigating the modern world. His solution is to unplug completely every so often.
“Tech guys, like myself, have gotta eject,” he says. “I make it a point on weekends to unhook — no cell phones, no computers, no TV. I go play with the kids, I work out.
“Using technology, we’ve made ourselves more vulnerable in many aspects because of the sharing of information. People know what you eat, where you live, where you work, what kind of car you drive. You’re exposing yourself. Granted, most people are law-abiding citizens, but there’s a small percent who want to hurt you. When you get naked online, you’re exposing too much of yourself.”
Literally and figuratively. The best bet for staying cybersafe is to employ commonsense practices regarding privacy and awareness as outlined by Duque.
And may you never find yourself on either end of his or Van Marter’s radar.