International gangs target British businesses in 'cyber crime' surge

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The Independent Online

International gangs are targeting British business in an effort to steal or extort millions of pounds through "cyber crime", the police's intelligence agency said.

Organised crime was diversifying from known operations such as as drug-smuggling, money-laundering and people-trafficking to internet fraud, the National Criminal Intelligence Service said in its annual threat assessment.

A survey of 203 major firms found that 83 per cent had fallen victim to cyber crime, losing £195m between them, it said. The scams were being co-ordinated by "virtual" crime gangs, or "crews", operating online, making them difficult to track down.

Warning that the crime wave threatened to jeopardise Britain's position as a world leader in online banking, the service said many leading cyber-crooks were in the former Soviet Union, with others in North America, the Far East and Brazil. "These groups are involved in all aspects of hi-tech crime, including malicious software, fraud, extortion and counterfeiting," it said.

Among the gangs' key tools are "trojans", computer programs that look harmless but enable criminals to obtain bank account details, passwords and PIN numbers. The information is then used to steal cash or extort money from the victim.

Large groups of compromised computers -"botnets" - can be managed by remote control, enabling criminals to commit offences on "a massive scale". The service said one study last year found the number of botnets had increased 15-fold in just six months.

Another scam is disrupting a company's internet service on a massive scale, offering to end the attack in return for payment. Russian gangs have targeted online gambling sites, promising to stop in return for a payment often as low as £3,000. "As some companies were losing £100,000 an hour while under attack, many chose to pay up," the service reported.

It said there had been a dramatic increase last year in the incidence of "phishing", when authentic-looking e-mails trick computer-users into divulging personal financial information. In November 2003, 21 "phishing" attacks were identified, rising to almost 2,000 just eight months later. Three per cent are estimated to fool the recipients, but "only a small fraction of the thousands of fake e-mails need to be successful to make phishing highly lucrative".

The service said the quantity of Class A drugs smuggled into Britain appears to have remained stable in recent years, representing between 25 tons and 35 tons of heroin - 95 per cent from Afghanistan - and between 35 tons and 45 tons of cocaine.

Turkish gangs, both abroad and in London, continued to dominate the heroin trade, although Pakistani and white British gangs were gaining an increased share. Most heroin was distributed through the capital, although Merseyside, Birmingham, Bristol and Glasgow were "significant regional hubs".

NSIS said crack cocaine was distributed from London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Wolverhampton, Bristol, Nottingham and Leeds, although it was "increasingly available throughout the UK, including in rural areas".Crime bosses are using illegal immigrants to make money by begging and pick-pocketing, particularly in London, it said.