Cyber-related crimes don’t appear to be going away anytime soon.
Pasco Sheriff Sgt. Sam Pepenella knows that better than most — as the unit supervisor of the agency’s cyber and computer forensic investigations.
He shared some of his insights as the featured guest speaker at an East Pasco Networking Group meeting in Dade City last month.
The Sheriff’s Office processes about 9,000 digital devices — phones, tablets, computers — every year, a significant rise from when Pepenella helped form the special unit nearly a decade ago.
“It’s getting busier,” the law enforcement officer said.
In traditional crime, perpetrators use a pry bar and pop open a door, Pepenella said. Cybercriminals, he said, run their fingers over a keyboard and find a way to break in.
Much of Pepenella’s talk focused on common online scams his unit has been seeing lately.
One, known as phishing, is the fraudulent attempt to obtain sensitive information such as usernames, passwords and credit card details by disguising as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication.
Phishing scammers often send emails or texts posing as a bank or financial institution, to try and bait users into providing their bank account information or click links or attachments that then download malicious software. He pointed out financial institutions never ask for any personal or account information, via email, unsolicited phone calls or text messages.
To protect against phishing, the speaker advised users to do their due diligence before opening and responding to any solicited emails or text messages. Securing and frequently changing passwords is another way to reduce risks.
Said Pepenella: “Make sure you know what you’re opening. Make sure you know what you’re clicking on. If you’re not 100 percent sure on who you’re receiving this information from, don’t click on it.”
The same goes for accepting friend and follower requests, and messages from strangers on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, he said.
“If you don’t know them, don’t accept them as a friend,” he advised.
The speaker mentioned that even the Nigerian scam is still prevalent and has victimized people locally. “It is happening,” he said.
These type of scams involve someone overseas offering a share in a large sum of money or a payment on the condition you help them to transfer money out of their country. While these scams originated in Nigeria, they now come from all over the world.
Stolen money is rarely recovered in these cases, Pepenella said.
He explained: “It’s not uncommon for us today to get complaints from citizens, ‘Hey, my life savings is gone.’ We find out they became a victim of a Nigerian scam. All a sudden they got an email, the scammer gains the trust of the person…and they just tug on the heartstrings.
“Unfortunately, once that money leaves this country and leaves our borders, we have no jurisdiction over it,” he explained.
The speaker also touched on some alarming figures related to online child sexual solicitation and exploitation.
Reported complaints of suspected child sexual exploitation to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has increased by more than 10 million nationwide in the past two years alone, he said.
He surmised the rise in tips to NCMEC is partially explained by the recent proliferation of family plans from cellphone carriers.
As a result, the number of digital devices have skyrocketed— and, that, combined with a lack of oversight from parents when it comes to technology, gives youth unfettered access to smartphones, tablets and computers.
The law enforcement official went on to explain that online predators will communicate with adolescents through the chat feature in Xbox and PlayStation video games.
The predators try to develop a relationship with youths, and attempt to gain their trust and confidence with the promise of gifts and money.
From there, Pepenella said, offenders begin a “grooming” process over a period of time, coaxing children to take and send sexually explicit photos and videos of themselves via cellphone.
The Pasco Sheriff’s cyber investigations unit has found children as young as age 9 who were sexually solicited by online predators, Pepenella said. Many of the offenders are in another state, he said.
Said Pepenella, “Unfortunately, in a lot of those cases, they happen out of the area. They might happen in Missouri or New York or California. What we do is put as much of the case together as possible and ship it off to that jurisdiction.”
Meanwhile, Pepenella urged parents to limit their children’s screen time, use parental controls on digital devices and have access to all passwords.
“Be nosy about what your kids are doing, and do not allow that device out of your sight,” Pepenella said.
Published April 10, 2019