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Cyber Sleuth

Fresh out of high school, Dan Larkin followed a friend to Indiana University of Pennsylvania and into the Criminology Department.

“I was like a lot of kids in high school,” Larkin said. “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do.” It wouldn’t be long before the future came into focus.

Dan Larkin
More than twenty years after he began a career with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Larkin, who graduated from IUP in 1982, is leading the charge against a modern-day scourge—cyber criminals who cost consumers and industries billions of dollars every year.

The crimes he fights today—crimes with names like phishing, reshipping, and identity theft—were unheard of when Larkin signed on with the FBI on his first try in 1985.

But from the day he entered IUP seven years before, he had unwittingly been preparing for his career—with a major in Criminology and an affinity for the technological. After he earned his degree in 1982, he began designing security systems and writing the technical manuals that went with them.

Three years into that job, Larkin heard the FBI was looking for new agents. He decided to give it a shot.

The native of Allegheny County’s O’Hara Township took along to his interview stacks of the manuals he had written. “I got in really young and on the first try, which is not standard,” he said.

His career in the FBI took him first to Washington, D.C., and then back to Pittsburgh in 1994 to head up the field office’s white collar crimes division. For more than three years, Larkin oversaw the Internet Crime Complaint Center, the Fairmont, W.Va., clearinghouse to which the public can report web-based crimes.

It became clear, though, he said, that law enforcement needed the help of experts from industry and academia if it hoped to fight cyber criminals preying on citizens and on-line businesses.   

Dan Larkin

“Bringing non-law enforcement folks into FBI-classified space is a tough thing to do,” Larkin said. “We came to the conclusion that it would be better to collaborate on a program that would create neutral, meet-in-the-middle space.”

So, a year ago, the Internet Crime Complaint Center was split. Larkin was tapped to head the spin-off—the Cyber Initiative and Resource Fusion Unit, which is the FBI’s portion of a nonprofit that tackles Internet crime in a unique way.

The overall nonprofit—the National Cyber-Forensics and Training Alliance, based in Pittsburgh—blends law enforcement officials, industry experts, and academics to find new ways to fight cyber crime.

“We need them to come in and roll up their sleeves and work on this ever-changing problem—brainstorm the problems of today versus yesterday, because they do change,” Larkin said. “We all come together within the NCFTA space to figure out the problem and strategize what to do.”

So Internet service providers, on-line retailers, banks, and credit card companies send representatives to the alliance to train on combating the latest threats and to apply their own expertise to what’s happening in the real world.
 
“The industry folks working with us make us so much smarter than we would be by ourselves,” Larkin said. “In this arena, if you don’t create an environment where you draw the experts to you, you lose.”

The alliance gives companies the chance to share data they’ve found alarming. And, it gives law enforcement the ability to look at that data without a subpoena. [Industry] “wanted to be able to deal with data that to it were anomalies but to us are blips on the radar screen of an impending threat,” Larkin said.

The staff of the NCFTA typically comprises graduate students as well. Larkin said the students are often hired by companies to be their “eyes and ears” in the office.

“They see the world, the Internet, and cyber just a little bit differently,” Larkin said. “It’s really important for us to have these fresh eyes and fresh perspectives.”

When a citizen reports being victimized by an Internet scam, the individual losses are often small—too small for traditional law enforcement to handle. But Larkin’s team will take that information and go to an industry source—an Internet service provider or on-line merchant—to find out whether others have been victimized by the same scam. Often, they have.

“We found we could take that aggregate information to a much higher level,” Larkin said.

Often, cyber criminals will be in one place but will use servers in other places to do their dirty work. Larkin’s office pursues a case until it can be handed over to the proper local or international law enforcement agencies.

His office investigates all types of Internet crime. It looks into such incidents as phishing, in which perpetrators send out e-mails that look as though they’re from legitimate companies. Victims unwittingly divulge personal financial information that is then used to defraud them.

Then, there is reshipping, which starts when international criminals use fraudulent credit card information to make on-line purchases.  If wary merchants block shipments to certain countries, perpetrators may recruit U.S. citizens and/or companies to receive the merchandise at domestic addresses and then ship it overseas.

Larkin said he learns every day in his job. “I never fancied myself to be a high-tech person,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot. I keep learning from the talented folks that are here.”

Larkin and his wife, Nancy Enck Larkin ’83, live in Cranberry Township. Their older daughter, Danielle, graduated from IUP last August with a degree in nuclear medical technology. Another daughter, Grace, is a sophomore at West Virginia University, and their son, Tim, is a senior at Seneca Valley High School.

Larkin occasionally takes ribbing from FBI colleagues because his office is so conveniently based in his hometown of Pittsburgh. He is quick, though, to point out that the area’s high-tech experts are in some cases world renowned.

“There happen to be in this town some of the best subject matter experts anywhere,” he said.

Despite all the expertise available to NCFTA, Larkin said the challenges of fighting Internet crime are continually reinvented: “We kind of remind ourselves to erase the white board every few days and start over.”