It was a case of identity theft. A number of "virgin" credit card numbers — issued to new cards — and cardholders' names were used to purchase items online. Internet service provider information showed that the thief was working in a residential neighborhood not known for a high crime rate. More specifically, IP addresses were traced back to a home where no one with criminal records or outstanding warrants lived.
The resident allowed police to search her home. Upstairs investigators found her computer — a wireless router set up. The antenna was pointed out toward the cul-de-sac she lived in, and the home network itself was unsecured. "Anyone could get into that network from about two blocks away," says Ravi Ram, a 13-year veteran of the Los Angeles County (Calif.) Sheriff's Department at the time he worked the case; Ram is now a reserve deputy with LASD.
During the interview, police became certain that the resident was not involved with the identity theft, so investigators checked the router. It revealed several suspicious connections, along with the media access control (MAC) address that identified a laptop — and the Windows username that identified its owner. The resident recognized the last name as her neighbor, who lived four houses down.
Investigators obtained a warrant for that residence. There, they established that the laptop belonged to a teenager living there. He had obtained the credit card information, about 6,000 numbers in all, from a Ukrainian source via Internet Relay Channel (IRC) chat. "He'd used his own family's Internet connection for his first thefts, but as he learned more about what he was doing, he began to hack other people's networks," says Ram.
James Williams, a detective with the Sacramento County (Calif.) Sheriff's Department and a member of the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) unit within the Sacramento Valley Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force, says most criminals he encounters continue to use their own home networks rather than their neighbors'. "The good news is that we typically find evidence that will defeat any claims that 'someone else did it from my unsecured wireless,' " he says.
Still, he adds that savvier predators and identity thieves, as in Ram's investigation, use nearby unsecured wireless networks run by their neighbors, small stores, restaurants, repair shops, and so forth — and not all commit their crimes from the comfort of their own homes. "I have spoken with other patrol officers from various California agencies who have been encountering [suspicious activity from] people with laptops," Williams says.
Created to improve mobility for business users, wireless network technology has also appealed to home users, who use it to create "peer to peer" networks — to link computers, gaming and other entertainment devices. This has become easier as the cost of components — routers and access points, network interface cards, and computers themselves — drops, and speed improves.
Currently, 802.11g — five times as fast as 802.11b — is most widely used, although according to a 2007 Computer World article, Internet technology has outpaced it. Thanks to voiceover IP (VoIP), streaming video and gaming applications, wireless networks need to be able to support demand for more bandwidth, faster speed and longer ranges.
Expected to supply it all is a new standard, 802.11n, which should be formally approved this year. So, along with experiencing fewer dead spots, consumers will be able to download and save video from their computers to wireless-enabled devices such as TVs. Multiple users and uses will also find it easier to work and play.
These improvements will benefit criminals, too — and potentially present greater challenges to law enforcement. Not only will the networking power make it easier for criminals to create, download and share materials like pornography; it will also enable them to steal networking from their neighbors from much further away — not the next house or two over, but the next block or two over. And stronger security could impact law enforcement's ability to access evidence.