It wasn't too long ago when your average police officer might not think twice about a computer found at a crime scene. But in the last decade, especially as the internet has become more familiar to good guys and bad guys alike, law enforcement officials have learned that, whether it's the target of a crime, a tool used in a crime, or a place to look for evidence of a crime, a computer can be very revealing. And the variety of offenses they investigate may surprise you.
"We've worked a homicide case where a woman actually hired someone to kill her husband, who she was having an affair with," Lt. LJ "Chip" Johnson, Jr., of the South Carolina Computer Crime Center told us. "The evidence of that crime was found in the emails that they had been sending to each other, stored electronically on their computers. And that's what broke that case."
Identity theft, child exploitation, forgery, embezzlement, counterfeiting and even murder are some of the crimes the agents at the Computer Crime Center investigate. This facility, opened just last December, houses some of the most state-of-the-art crime-fighting equipment and forensic expertise the state could gather. These are the people who will track you down, if you commit a crime and leave evidence on a computer.
Rather than fingerprints or blood samples, these crime scene investigators are looking on confiscated machines for files--like fake $20 bills or forged IDs--and records of user behavior. Reports of suspicious activity can even lead to an undercover investigation, including online operations via chat rooms and email.
"We have made numerous arrests on child exploitation matters, where undercover operations around the county were utilized to draw these folks in and identify them, providing the evidence that we needed to move forward and search their computers and find child pornography in order to make those arrests," Johnson said.
Of course, preventing terrorism is foremost in the mission of law enforcement officials at all levels. Crimes committed on a computer--like the forging of an American Social Security card--can aid terrorist groups. Fortunately, they also leave a trail of electronic evidence for investigators. And now we know that the internet itself can be a tool for terrorist attacks to cause failure of critical infrastructure.
"Cyberterrorism is an area that we are emerging in as well and developing some protocols and some programs within that as well," Johnson said.
One example authorities are investigating is last month's Slammer worm, which, among other things, shut down thousands of ATMs nationwide. A malicious prank or a terror strike? Johnson said we'd have to "wait and see. I don't know. I've been briefed on it, I've kept up to date on it since it came out."
Even if a suspect is identified outside the state, these agents stand ready to contribute their findings and experience to bring perpetrators to justice.