The hacking and identity theft tools now earning big money for mainly eastern European organized crime could be used by terrorists to attack the United States, an FBI official said on Wednesday.
FBI Deputy Assistant Director Steve Martinez said cyber crime was no longer the domain of teenage geeks but had been taken over by sophisticated gangs.
"Tools and methods used by these increasingly skilled hackers could be employed to cripple our economy and attack our critical infrastructure as part of a terrorist plot," Martinez told a conference in Miami on Internet security.
People had to assume, he said, that terrorists would seek to hire hackers to "raise money, aid command and control, spread terrorist propaganda and recruit more into their ranks and, lastly and most ominously, attack at little risk."
The seminar in Miami, hosted by Florida International University, focused on the growing incidence of "phishing," in which hackers send computer users e-mails to convince them to enter financial data or passwords in fake Web sites.
Victims can compromise their credit cards, bank accounts and even their identities.
Martinez, acting head of the FBI's Cyber Division, said the agency had not seen traditional organized crime in the United States migrate to the Internet but that eastern European gangs had embraced cyber crime with enthusiasm.
"They're targeting your money, access to your personal information, identity. They're doing it on a massive scale. The price of a credit card number is dropping into the pennies now," he said.
The FBI was trying to convince foreign law enforcement agencies to crack down on the culprits, he said.
In many former Soviet republics, laws covering cyber crimes were inadequate and the U.S. Justice Department was working with foreign governments to fill the legal gaps, he said.
In the meantime, he said the risk of cyber terrorism post-Sept. 11, 2001, should not be ignored.
The Internet could allow attackers to remain anonymous, to strike at multiple targets from a distance, and escape detection. Critical infrastructure such as water, power and transportation systems remained vulnerable, Martinez said.
"In the future cyber terrorism may become a viable option to traditional physical acts of violence," he said. "Terrorists have figured out that we have a technological soft underbelly."