Serbian Hackers Face Crackdown

Serbia's emergence from international isolation is bad news for the country's computer hackers

Serbian Hackers Face Crackdown

Serbia's emergence from international isolation is bad news for the country's computer hackers

Friday, 4 January, 2002

Yugoslavia intends to adopt new laws to curb Internet hackers this month, drastically curtailing what until recently was a thriving trade in web theft.

While the country languished under Western sanctions, the theft of Viagra packets, chocolate boxes, digital cameras and watches, T-shirts and Cuban cigars went unpunished.

Forging credit card numbers, the hackers left a trail of devastation on the web, plundering companies throughout the US and Western Europe.

The motive was partly to avenge the West for isolating Yugoslavia and partly for sheer entertainment. But the main incentive was financial gain.

"From a single box of Viagra I used to pay my rent," one Serbian web thief said, with a smile. "Stealing Viagra was a real hit, as it arrived in small packages and with no customs."

The fall of Slobodan Milosevic last year wiped the smile off the hackers' faces. Since his overthrow, Yugoslavia has rejoined the international police network, Interpol, while the new laws against web theft will curb the hackers' activities.

The draft legislation lists eight computer-related crimes now liable for prosecution. They include unauthorised use of computers and spreading computer viruses. Those found guilty face up to 12 years in jail.

Yugoslavia's international isolation under Milosevic contributed to the growth of this criminal trade. One experienced web thief explained how the system worked. "All you needed was a valid number from some credit card," he said.

The hackers used programs found on certain illegal sites, which generate forged credit card numbers. If some were spotted, others were not. "You just had to try another number. One would certainly succeed," he said.

When plundered sites refused to deliver any more books, videos, DVD cassettes and CDs to Yugoslavia, the hackers responded by replacing "Yugoslavia" with "Serbia" as the country of destination.

Another ploy was to request a delivery to an address in Serbia and write "Hungary" or "Greece" as the country of destination. When the goods reached those countries, their post offices redirected the mail to the address in Serbia.

During NATO's bombardment of Yugoslavia in 1999, the hackers deliberately created chaos on the net. Justifying their work as "patriotic theft", they stole exclusively from sites in the US and other states taking part in the campaign.

After the fall of Milosevic, the hackers started covering up their traces, knowing the new authorities would soon re-establish ties with the West. They changed both the computers and the Internet service providers they had used.

Two months ago, the police duly announced that the international community expected Serbia to crack down on web thieves, after various companies had submitted details of theft and the credit card numbers they had used.

Few of the old web thieves are worried, as they covered their tracks well - and the value of most individual thefts rarely exceeded 100 US dollars, making court cases improbable.

More important than prosecuting hackers is legislation to limit their scope for activity in the future. The authorities hope the new laws will achieve just that.

Katarina Bugajski is a regular IWPR contributor

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