Just last weekend three Oahu residents were swindled out of up to $2,000 in a computer fraud case.

As Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Chris Van Marter explained to state lawmakers Tuesday, it was an all-too-familiar scam: The victims received emails that appeared to be from friends stating that they were vacationing in a foreign country and had been robbed.

“Please wire money,” the emails would say.

Stranded-traveler scams, Van Marter said, are being reported to local authorities nearly every week.

“It’s going to get a whole lot worse,” he warned of cybercrimes.

Rep. George Fontaine, a Maui Republican and retired police captain, agrees: “It’s serious, it’s pervasive, it’s sophisticated.”

Pine Case Motivated House GOP

Fontaine chaired the information briefing that brought Van Marter and other online crime experts to the Capitol on Tuesday. As Civil Beat has reported, there has been a dramatic increase in computer crimes since 2005.

But it was the alleged hacking of a state representative’s email and website that inspired the legislative briefing.

“Many of us hear more and more from constituents that they are becoming victims,” said Kymberly Pine, a Republican representing Ewa Beach and Iroquois Point. “And as a victim, I can tell you that it is not an easy thing to deal with. Our job hopefully is to get ideas for the Legislature.”

(The Pine case is still under investigation by the Honolulu Police Department. The FBI said it will not file charges in the case.)

Cybercrime is new territory for lawmakers.

As House Minority Leader Gene Ward explained, “This is our first-ever hearing on this subject, an area where we have to catch up to the reality of what is going on in the unseen world of cyberspace.”

What the Legislature can do for law enforcement, according to law enforcement, is strengthen existing law relating to computers, consider other bills and support agencies with funding.

Van Marter singled out the state’s 1984 law on computer fraud and unauthorized use of a computer that has greatly helped the prosecutor’s office. But the law was amended in 2001, narrowing its scope and rendering it effectively useless.

Van Marter would like to see the law’s original language reinstated. He’d also like to see computer fraud laws be as strong as Hawaii laws on identity theft.

Van Marter pointed to the recent incident of members of Armenian gangs swiping credit card and debit card information from Waikiki gas stations. Nearly 200 people were victims to the tune of some $200,000, but because of the state’s tough identity theft laws, the perpetrators are facing 20 years in prison.

Getting Cell Phone Providers, ISP’s On Board

A critical hole in Hawaii’s efforts to deal with online crime is the lack of cooperation from cell phone and internet service companies.

To that end, Van Marter also recommended the Legislature model legislation in five other states, including California, that calls for out-of-state businesses doing business in another state to honor local search warrants and court orders.

Most cell-phone providers and Internet Service Providers doing business in Hawaii are from the mainland, he said.

And, Van Marter encouraged lawmakers to urge the U.S. Congress to act on pending legislation that would require those companies to retain consumer records for up to two years.

“Most people don’t realize that there is no federal or state law that requires service providers to retain records for even one day,” he said.

Christopher Duque, a retired detective with HPD’s Criminal Investigation Division, said law enforcement also needs funding for training, manpower and equipment.

“It really comes down to money,” he told lawmakers, adding that greater education and awareness on the part of computer users could go a long way toward reducing cybercrime.

“The Internet is a digital elephant — it never forgets,” said Duque. “Most online users are law-abiding residents, but it’s the small 1 percent scum of the Earth that need to be eradicated.”

That line got laughs in the Capitol briefing room. But the data on cybercrime was sobering.

“Malware development is progressing at record pace,” said Beau Monday, an information technology specialist with Hawaiian Telcom. “Q2 (April-June) was the worst quarter in history — or else we’re just getting better at detecting bad things. But truth is undeniable: We are swamped with vicious code on the Internet.”

Monday illustrated the proliferation by noting that, within only two hours of the Japan earthquake in March, “hostile or malicious” websites sprung up to tell people where they could donate money for disaster relief.

“They got picked up by Google,” Monday said of the websites.

Will Laws Be Changed?

In spite of the recent media attention to cybercrime, not a single Democratic lawmaker turned up for the briefing.

Fontaine said he was “disappointed” by the other party’s absence, as members had been invited.

“This is a bipartisan issue,” he said.

House GOP aide Linda Smith, however, said the House Sergeant-At-Arms streamed coverage of the briefing through the Legislature’s internal video system, meaning that other representatives and their staffs may have tuned in.

If the Republicans do introduce legislation to strengthen law enforcement’s hand in fighting “hacktivism,” they’ll need the help of majority Democrats to move bills out of committee.

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