Law enforcement agencies can count a few recent victories against cybercriminals, but agents say the battle against them isn't getting any easier.
Highly organized cybercriminals are using increasingly sophisticated tools and methods that make them hard to trace, said Keith Mularski, supervisory special agent with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's Cyber Division.
"They have evolved over the years," Mularkski said. "It really is organized crime."
Mularski, who spoke at the RSA conference in London on Wednesday, has had great success in infiltrating organized cybercrime rings. He successfully infiltrated a ring known as DarkMarket, an online forum where criminals bought and sold personal data, such as credit card numbers. DarkMarket was shut down about a year ago and 59 people were arrested, with the help of authorities in the U.K., Germany, Turkey and other countries.
While the DarkMarket bust was a big win, there are still such forums operating today and they're hard to infiltrate. New members must be vetted for reliability and to ensure they're not agents like Mularski.
The malicious software programs used to collect the data have become insidiously complicated and hard to detect. Financial organizations now are in a "raging battle" against "high-grade" weaponry, said Uri Rivner, RSA's head of new technologies for identity protection and verification, who gave a presentation earlier in the day at RSA.
Those programs go by names such as Sinowal -- also known as Mebroot and Torpig -- which is a nasty rootkit that burrows in a computer's master boot record below the OS. It may not even be removed by reinstalling the operating system. It can steal data and even modify the HTML of Web pages requested by a user.
Computers that do not have up-to-date software patches are in particular danger. Hackers often set up Web sites or hack legitimate ones to perform what's called a "drive-by" download, which automatically exploits vulnerable software programs to infect a computer.
Microsoft has particular insight into the problem. Late last month, the company released its free Security Essentials antivirus software and so far it has been downloaded 3.5 million times, said Amy Barzdukas, Microsoft's general manager for Internet Explorer and Consumer Security, who also spoke at RSA.
More than 30 percent of those computers running Security Essentials needed "a fair amount of cleaning of viruses, Trojans and rootkits," she said.
While it may be hard for law enforcement to figure out who is writing those malicious programs, they do have a clear five-prong strategy for how to disrupt the cybercrime operations.
Agents try to infiltrate the groups if possible, said Andy Auld head of intelligence of the e-crime department for the U.K.'s Serious Organized Crime Agency, who spoke alongside Mularski.
Following the money exchanged for personal data is also a "critical path," Auld said. Tracking down stolen data is important, as credit card numbers that are being traded can be shut down before the criminals have a chance to use or sell the numbers.
Another path is finding ways to revoke the IP (Internet Protocol) address allocations given to cybercriminals running servers. Those allocations are given by five organizations, including the RIPE Network Coordination Center, he said.
The FBI has become more proactive in dealing with fast-breaking cybercrime issues, Mularski said. For example, the FBI has issued public service advisories warning people of online-related hazards, stepping away from its secretive tradition.
"We're adapting," Mularski said. "We're making great strides."