Hard-disk detectives rout cyberthugs

January 12, 1995|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,Sun Staff Writer

For the Baltimore County Police Department's computer crime- fighters, happiness is a smoking hard disk.

While detectives often chase garden-variety criminals, cybergumshoes Sandra B. Mapstone and Roland M. Lascola match wits with hackers, phone freaks, forgers, kiddie pornographers and disgruntled employees who use computers to steal or destroy.

They crack pass codes, trace system invaders and retrieve information hidden carefully on the disk drives of criminals who think their work will go undetected.

"We deal with people who are incredibly good with computers, but who are also stupid, criminally speaking. They're just not good crooks. If they were, we would never catch them," said Detective Mapstone, 38.

Working quietly from a cluttered office in Towson, the Computer Crime Unit is a well-kept secret locally. But the computer specialists are frequently called upon for assistance by other local, state and national law enforcement agencies.

"They have the highest reputation in the law enforcement community on technical matters of computer forensics," said John F. Lewis, assistant special agent in charge at the Office of Protective Research for the U.S. Secret Service in Washington.

"They can look at information that's on a computer and be able to find evidence whether or not someone has tried to hide it," he said. "They can testify to methods that they used to gather the evidence and prove that they didn't alter the evidence in trying to locate it. The amount of evidence demonstrates to the suspect that if action is brought forward to trial, it would end in a conviction."

Consider the case of the Towson burglar alarm company whose owner fired the firm's general manager last March.

The disgruntled executive reprogrammed the alarms in all the customers' homes to dial the owner's phone every 30 seconds. Then he changed the pass codes on the central computer so that no one could make the home alarms work again.

Unable to control its own computer system, the company would have had to replace the electronics in the alarms of all its customers -- a staggering expense.

By tracing phone calls, the two detectives figured out what had happened. They got a search warrant, seized the former manager's personal computer and found a hidden file containing codes the company needed to reclaim its system.

The suspect pleaded guilty .

In the last six years, none of the cases the pair has solved has ever gone to trial -- the evidence they collected was solid enough to persuade the criminals to plea bargain. But the detectives don't see their success as a deterrent.

"We're going to see more and more computer crimes, because I think it's going to be the new white-collar crime of the future," said Detective Lascola, 43, who operated mainframe computers for the Koppers Co. before joining the force in 1973.

"We, as the law enforcement, need to prepare ourselves for these types of crimes, because how can you do an investigation if you can't interrogate someone on a technical level?"

The detectives bring that technical know-how to the job, along with the street smarts they learned in years on patrol. They rely on their deceptive appearance and a good cop-bad cop routine they've developed to unnerve their prey.

Detective Mapstone, a tall blonde whose friendly high spirits can quickly turn into steel, attended a computer training institute in Pittsburgh when she graduated from high school 20 years ago. She wound up on the police force -- patrolling Essex and Dundalk -- when she couldn't find a job in the computer industry. She's the "bad cop." The calm, gray-haired Detective Lascola looks and acts like everyone's father. In fact, his partner calls him "dad."

Besides playing off each another, they've learned to play dumb.

"They think we're a couple of flatfoots. They think, 'What do these guys know about computers?' " Detective Mapstone said. "It works out well for us to talk to people like that, because Roland likes to act like he doesn't know how the computer works. And I'll ask them if they're really sure if that's how the computer works, because, you know, we're only a couple of cops. We wait until the suspects lie and lie and lie until they bury themselves big time."

But as all good things come to end, so must good partnerships. Detective Lascola is retiring, and the department is interviewing candidates to replace him. Detective Mapstone is eligible to retire in April but hasn't decided whether to do so.

Their office is littered with computers and other equipment -- and each piece has a tale to tell.

The IBM Model 60 near the window was donated by a business after the detectives recovered $100,000 worth of property that the company didn't know was missing.

The ancient Commodore 64 on a high shelf was used by a 15-year-old Rosedale hacker who posted stolen credit card numbers on an electronic bulletin board.

When the detectives knocked on his door, he grabbed the floppy disk with the evidence, crumpled it up and threw it into a corner.

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