PIs take to cyberworld to crack cases
The News Corp. hacking scandal makes for good headlines, but a pair of Connecticut private eyes says citizens are more likely to have run-ins with cyberworld hijinks when marriages and business dealings go bad.
After five years of seeing their cases steadily lead into the digital world, Vito Colucci Jr. and Al Dressler, partners in Stamford-based Colucci Investigations, opened the Central Computer and Cell Phone Forensics Lab and FaceChecks.com at the University of Bridgeport. The lab, opened earlier this year, is part of UB's incubator program designed to provide resources to innovative technology companies.
Dressler, standing in the lab, which looks every bit the prototypical PI office of spartan desks, old photos, a flag and some newspaper clippings, said the News Corp. scandal probably shouldn't surprise anyone because England is a hub for cellphone hacking equipment. It's where the new lab gets its equipment to detect cellphone and computer security breaches, he said.
Reporters at the now-defunct U.K.-based News of the World are being accused of tapping into cellphones to retrieve text and voice mail messages. In the incident that sparked the controversy, reporters at News of the World hired a PI to break into the phone of a murder victim. They also allegedly engaged in hacking of celebrities' phones.
In the U.S., investigators can't just bust into a phone or computer to follow up leads in a case.
"I need permission from the owner of the device," he said.
He said cellphone hacking usually requires a person to physically take hold of a phone and then load information into a computer. Then, you track the phone through a special site to intercept messages.
While the News Corp. case plays out politically and legally in the U.K., Dressler and Colucci said their business has gotten a lift from the publicity surrounding it and others hacking scandals.
A couple of hacking rings, Anonymous and LulzSec, were linked to breaches in security of corporate and government databases and websites recently.
Dressler and Colucci say they get calls from lawyers and businesses who want to know if they or their clients are being bugged.
"Sometimes we find them," Dressler said. "But sometimes, the client just wants piece of mind."
The forensics lab and background checks service "are high potential growth businesses," said Gad Selig, UB School of Engineering associate dean and head of the incubator program. He said boardroom and disaster security are particularly important fields, and besides being used for investigations, the lab also does system security checks and consulting. FaceChecks in particular provides a way for parents to do background checks on their children's online friends to make sure they are not sexual predators.
Selig said the university plans to offer forensic and security computer classes in the future in association with the lab.
Many cases the investigators have solved involve the dissolution of marriages.
In one case, a woman was going through a divorce, and her then-husband seemed to know her every move.
Dressler went to her home, looked at the computer system and found the firewalls on the computer were down and someone was parking outside her house and tracking her usage.
He reintroduced security measures on the computer.
In a different case, a husband went even further. The man installed cellphone disabling technology in the house, forcing his wife to use the landline, which the husband had bugged.
"The cellphone disabling device was in the attic and the recorder for the landline was in the basement," Dressler said.
"It's a continuation of the business," Colucci, a veteran detective, said.