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The FBI places cyber attacks among its top three priorities, said Mark Mershon, assistant director in charge of the New York City field office.
In fact, prevention is so important the crime-fighting agency will negotiate its normally strict employment standards for those with cyber backgrounds, he said.
Mershon gave a keynote address at the International Security Conference and Exposition (ISC) East and InfoSecurity 2006, which were held jointly Tuesday at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City.
Behind terrorism and corporate espionage, cyber crime is high on the list of problems the FBI focuses on. Mershon said that although he considers cyber crime a relatively new means of carrying out traditional crimes, he said it requires different skill sets to investigate.
The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) receives 18,000 complaints a month, he said. They range from individuals reporting spam to reports of massive breaches and hackers accessing companies' user codes and passwords to access credit reports.
The one involving Ford and Experian in 2002 resulted in a $15 million loss and the arrest of at least 17 subjects in several countries, he said. Mershon said that private corporations' reluctance to report hackers and security breaches slows investigations. Many companies are afraid to report security events because the potential for negative publicity, and loss of goodwill, income and shareholder value can pose a greater financial threat, he said.
"It results in victimization of additional corporations around the world," he said.
As the FBI increases its efforts to fight cyber crime, recruitment is difficult, Mershon explained.
"Of all the recruiting challenges we have in the FBI, finding folks with the appropriate IT skills is daunting," he said. "It's an area we're desperate for."
Mershon said that the FBI requires people to be 23 years old, have a Bachelor's degree and demonstrated work experience "except if they have cyber-skills." He recommended it as a career choice for people who have IT or Internet experience and want a job with "life purpose."
Austin Berglas, who works on a cyber crime squad at the FBI's New York City field office, said that strong computer skills or language skills can project special agent applicants to the top of the heap.
"In the special agent realm, if you can show a cyber background, they will look at you harder," he said during an interview after Mershon's speech.
A cyber agent who asked not to be named said that people with IT skills still have to pass background checks and fitness requirements.
"If you're not a pothead and you can run, and you have a left foot and a right foot and you can pass the interviews, you can do it," he said, adding that he spends some time at computers looking up IP addresses but plenty of time out looking for people as well.
In addition to investigating viruses and phishing scams, he investigates traditional crimes like money laundering. The agent said the thing he likes best about his job is the variety.
"It's a different day, every day," he said.