Despite constant advances in security technology, cybercrime remains a looming threat for U.S. consumers and businesses, according to experts from the FBI and the Department of Justice. "It's pretty scary," said Austin Berglas, cybercrime coordinator for the FBI's New York office, speaking at a Manhattan event sponsored by software firm Symantec ( SYMC). "I really don't think that there will ever be a day when law enforcement and government are ahead of cybercriminals." From viruses and worms to foreign-based online fraud, Washington clearly has its hands full dealing with cybercrime. However, the government is closing the gap with the bad guys, according to Berglas, who has high hopes for President Obama's recently-announced cyber-security strategy. "I think that it will only get better with Obama's appointment of a cyberczar -- I think that that is a benchmark in the fight against cybercrime," he added, during a panel discussion. Key elements of Obama's plan include appointing a top official to oversee U.S. cybersecurity efforts, forging closer ties between the federal government and the private sector, and responding more effectively to cyberattacks. Washington's cybersecurity offensive has already been welcomed by the likes of McAfee ( MFE ), and could also spell good news for companies such as Microsoft ( MSFT), Check Point ( CHKP) and Symantec. Officials at the New York event painted a worrying picture of cybercrime. "Is the problem growing? That's pretty safe to say," explained Michael Stawasz, senior counsel of the DoJ's Computer Crime & Intellectual Property Section. "You don't have to be that technically sophisticated to be a cybercriminal now. You can buy automatic scanners that look for vulnerabilities and exploit code."
Add to this the constant risk of sophisticated online fraud, often linked to organized crime in areas such as Eastern Europe, and you have a particularly combustible mix. Stawasz nonetheless feels that U.S. law enforcement agencies are clamping down on even the most advanced cybercriminals. "We're not just catching the stupid ones -- there are people out there using encryption, proxy
servers, WiFi, and we're catching them," he said. "I think we're winning -- we're getting better at finding people, and we're getting better at getting people to pay attention to their own security." Both men were also keen to dispel popular misconceptions about hackers. Berglas explained that the popular image of a nerdy teenagers attacking computers for kicks has been replaced by a much more menacing threat. "Now it's all financially motivated," he added. Despite the challenges, technology is also helping law enforcement track down criminals in ways that were impossible before. Berglas explained that many gang members, for example, are using Facebook and MySpace to communicate with each other, making the FBI's job much easier. "From an intelligence perspective, it's fantastic," he said. "Now we know that subject A has a connection with subject D that we couldn't get through wiretaps, but now we have a picture of them posing together."