The FBI is the lead federal agency for investigating cyber attacks by criminals, overseas adversaries, and terrorists. The threat is incredibly serious—and growing. Cyber intrusions are becoming more commonplace, more dangerous, and more sophisticated. Our nation’s critical infrastructure, including both private and public sector networks, are targeted by adversaries. American companies are targeted for trade secrets and other sensitive corporate data, and universities for their cutting-edge research and development. Citizens are targeted by fraudsters and identity thieves, and children are targeted by online predators. Just as the FBI transformed itself to better address the terrorist threat after the 9/11 attacks, it is undertaking a similar transformation to address the pervasive and evolving cyber threat. This means enhancing the Cyber Division’s investigative capacity to sharpen its focus on intrusions into government and private computer networks.
For more information on the FBI's cyber security efforts, read our "Addressing Threats to the Nation’s Cybersecurity" brochure.
Computer and Network Intrusions
The collective impact is staggering. Billions of dollars are lost every year repairing systems hit by such attacks. Some take down vital systems, disrupting and sometimes disabling the work of hospitals, banks, and 9-1-1 services around the country.
Who is behind such attacks? It runs the gamut—from computer geeks looking for bragging rights…to businesses trying to gain an upper hand in the marketplace by hacking competitor websites, from rings of criminals wanting to steal your personal information and sell it on black markets…to spies and terrorists looking to rob our nation of vital information or launch cyber strikes.
Today, these computer intrusion cases—counterterrorism, counterintelligence, and criminal—are the paramount priorities of our cyber program because of their potential relationship to national security.
Combating the threat. In recent years, we’ve built a whole new set of technological and investigative capabilities and partnerships—so we’re as comfortable chasing outlaws in cyberspace as we are down back alleys and across continents. That includes:
- A Cyber Division at FBI Headquarters “to address cyber crime in a coordinated and cohesive manner”;
- Specially trained cyber squads at FBI headquarters and in each of our 56 field offices, staffed with “agents and analysts who protect against investigate computer intrusions, theft of intellectual property and personal information, child pornography and exploitation, and online fraud”;
- New Cyber Action Teams that “travel around the world on a moment’s notice to assist in computer intrusion cases” and that “gather vital intelligence that helps us identify the cyber crimes that are most dangerous to our national security and to our economy;”
- Our 93 Computer Crimes Task Forces nationwide that “combine state-of-the-art technology and the resources of our federal, state, and local counterparts”;
- A growing partnership with other federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and others—which share similar concerns and resolve in combating cyber crime.
Hospitals, school districts, state and local governments, law enforcement agencies, small businesses, large businesses—these are just some of the entities impacted by ransomware, an insidious type of malware that encrypts, or locks, valuable digital files and demands a ransom to release them.
The inability to access the important data these kinds of organizations keep can be catastrophic in terms of the loss of sensitive or proprietary information, the disruption to regular operations, financial losses incurred to restore systems and files, and the potential harm to an organization’s reputation. Home computers are just as susceptible to ransomware and the loss of access to personal and often irreplaceable items— including family photos, videos, and other data—can be devastating for individuals as well.
In a ransomware attack, victims—upon seeing an e-mail addressed to them—will open it and may click on an attachment that appears legitimate, like an invoice or an electronic fax, but which actually contains the malicious ransomware code. Or the e-mail might contain a legitimate-looking URL, but when a victim clicks on it, they are directed to a website that infects their computer with malicious software.
One the infection is present, the malware begins encrypting files and folders on local drives, any attached drives, backup drives, and potentially other computers on the same network that the victim computer is attached to. Users and organizations are generally not aware they have been infected until they can no longer access their data or until they begin to see computer messages advising them of the attack and demands for a ransom payment in exchange for a decryption key. These messages include instructions on how to pay the ransom, usually with bitcoins because of the anonymity this virtual currency provides.
Ransomware attacks are not only proliferating, they’re becoming more sophisticated. Several years ago, ransomware was normally delivered through spam e-mails, but because e-mail systems got better at filtering out spam, cyber criminals turned to spear phishing e-mails targeting specific individuals. And in newer instances of ransomware, some cyber criminals aren’t using e-mails at all—they can bypass the need for an individual to click on a link by seeding legitimate websites with malicious code, taking advantage of unpatched software on end-user computers.
The FBI doesn’t support paying a ransom in response to a ransomware attack. Paying a ransom doesn’t guarantee an organization that it will get its data back—there have been cases where organizations never got a decryption key after having paid the ransom. Paying a ransom not only emboldens current cyber criminals to target more organizations, it also offers an incentive for other criminals to get involved in this type of illegal activity. And by paying a ransom, an organization might inadvertently be funding other illicit activity associated with criminals.
So what does the FBI recommend? As ransomware techniques and malware continue to evolve—and because it’s difficult to detect a ransomware compromise before it’s too late—organizations in particular should focus on two main areas:
- Prevention efforts—both in both in terms of awareness training for employees and robust technical prevention controls; and
- The creation of a solid business continuity plan in the event of a ransomware attack.
Tips for Dealing with Ransomware. While the below tips are primarily aimed at organizations and their employees, some are also applicable to individual users.
- Make sure employees are aware of ransomware and of their critical roles in protecting the organization’s data.
- Patch operating system, software, and firmware on digital devices (which may be made easier through a centralized patch management system).
- Ensure antivirus and anti-malware solutions are set to automatically update and conduct regular scans.
- Manage the use of privileged accounts—no users should be assigned administrative access unless absolutely needed, and only use administrator accounts when necessary.
- Configure access controls, including file, directory, and network share permissions appropriately. If users only need read specific information, they don’t need write-access to those files or directories.
- Disable macro scripts from office files transmitted over e-mail.
- Implement software restriction policies or other controls to prevent programs from executing from common ransomware locations (e.g., temporary folders supporting popular Internet browsers, compression/decompression programs).
- Back up data regularly and verify the integrity of those backups regularly.
- Secure your backups. Make sure they aren’t connected to the computers and networks they are backing up.
Identity theft—increasingly being facilitated by the Internet—occurs when someone unlawfully obtains another’s personal information and uses it to commit theft or fraud.
In 1998, Congress passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act to address the increasing problem of identity theft. The act specifically amended Title 18, U.S. Code, Section 1028 to make it a federal crime to “knowingly transfer or use, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person with the intent to commit, or to aid or abet, any unlawful activity that constitutes a violation of federal law, or that constitutes a felony under any applicable state or local law.”
To further deter identity thieves, Congress passed the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act in 2004. The legislation established penalties for “aggravated” identity theft, which is using the identity of another person to commit felony crimes, including immigration violations, theft of another’s Social Security benefits, and acts of domestic terrorism. The act required the court to sentence two additional years for a general offense and five years for a terrorism offense.
Along with names, Social Security numbers, and dates of birth, fraudsters also use Medicare numbers, addresses, birth certificates, death certificates, passport numbers, financial account numbers (i.e., bank account, credit card), passwords (e.g., mother’s maiden name, father’s middle name), telephone numbers, and biometric data (e.g., fingerprints, iris scans) to commit identity theft.
The number of identity theft victims and total losses are likely much higher than publicly-reported statistics. It is difficult to provide a precise assessment because different law enforcement agencies may classify identity theft crimes differently, and because identity theft can also involve credit card fraud, Internet fraud, or mail theft, among other crimes.
Some of the more prevalent schemes criminals are using these days to steal identities include suspicious e-mail and/or phishing attempts to trick victims into revealing personally identifiable information and computer and network intrusions that result in the loss of personally identifiable information.
The Internet Crime Complaint Center
The mission of the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) is to provide the public with a reliable and convenient reporting mechanism to submit information to the FBI concerning suspected Internet-facilitated fraud schemes and to develop effective alliances with law enforcement and industry partners. Information is analyzed and disseminated for investigative and intelligence purposes to law enforcement and for public awareness.
National Cyber Forensics & Training Alliance
Long before cyber crime was acknowledged to be a significant criminal and national security threat, the FBI supported the establishment of a forward-looking organization to proactively address the issue. Called the National Cyber-Forensics & Training Alliance (NCFTA), this organization—created in 1997 and based in Pittsburgh—has become an international model for bringing together law enforcement, private industry, and academia to build and share resources, strategic information, and threat intelligence to identify and stop emerging cyber threats and mitigate existing ones.
Since its establishment, the NCFTA has evolved to keep up with the ever-changing cyber crime landscape. Today, the organization deals with threats from transnational criminal groups including spam, botnets, stock manipulation schemes, intellectual property theft, pharmaceutical fraud, telecommunications scams, and other financial fraud schemes that result in billions of dollars in losses to companies and consumers.
The FBI Cyber Division’s Cyber Initiative and Resource Fusion Unit (CIRFU) works with the NCFTA, which draws its intelligence from the hundreds of private sector NCFTA members, NCFTA intelligence analysts, Carnegie Mellon University’s Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT), and the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. This extensive knowledge base has helped CIRFU play a key strategic role in some of the FBI’s most significant cyber cases in the past several years.
Because of the global reach of cyber crime, no single organization, agency, or country can defend against it. Vital partnerships like the NCFTA are key to protecting cyberspace and ensuring a safer cyber future for our citizens and countries around the world.
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Safe Online Surfing
The FBI Safe Online Surfing (FBI-SOS) program is a nationwide initiative designed to educate children in grades 3 to 8 about the dangers they face on the Internet and to help prevent crimes against children.
It promotes cyber citizenship among students by engaging them in a fun, age-appropriate, competitive online program where they learn how to safely and responsibly use the Internet.
The program emphasizes the importance of cyber safety topics such as password security, smart surfing habits, and the safeguarding of personal information.
For more information, visit the Safe Online Surfing website.