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Super Bowl Shakedown

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Feb. 7, 2010 - Super Bowl XLIV: New Orleans Saints vs. Indianapolis Colts. The two best teams in the National Football League square off in the biggest media event of the American sports year. Millions around the world anxiously await the game, set to kick off at 6 p.m. (Eastern Time).

Super Bowl logo

As Super Bowl Sunday approaches, wagering on the event rises astronomically. Around the globe, billions of dollars will be gambled on this single game, much of it will be wagered online. Last year, the Internet gambling industry generated in an estimated $10 billion to $12 billion, according to Capital HQ gaming analyst Michael Tew. About half of those revenues came from Americans.

Millions of people will bet money on this year's championship game through Internet sites, many of those located beyond U.S. borders. Despite the foreign location of these sites, the U.S. federal government in 2006 made Internet gambling illegal. This means Americans are breaking the law each time they place a bet with offshore gambling sites.

According to the 2006 act, Congress outlawed financial institutions from transacting in gaming revenues because "traditional law enforcement mechanisms are often inadequate for enforcing gambling prohibitions or regulations on the Internet, particularly where gambling crosses state or national borders."

Legal or not, gambling goes hand-in-hand with NFL events. Super Bowl Sunday in America is the "biggest gambling day of the year."

With billions at stake, much of it wagered on the internet, online gambling operators wait to get a piece of that action. But, also lurking in cyberspace, are various, largely unknown groups of high-tech gangsters and cyber-thieves. They lie in wait to extort the Internet gambling sites out of hundreds of millions of dollars.

These professional hackers have wreaked havoc on online services by utilizing "denial-of-service" attacks against internet gambling sites that rake in millions of dollars from online gamblers.

For years, Britain's National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHCTU) has been a leading force investigating cyber extortion on companies in the United Kingdom. "These are not groups of amateur hackers because great deals of money are changing hands," an NHCTU spokesman said. "Intelligence suggests that organized crime is involved."

According to national and international law enforcement agencies, organized crime groups based in Russia, Eastern Europe, Canada and Great Britain are preparing in Mafioso style to extort online gambling websites out of tons of money as the 2009 Super Bowl approaches.

Piles of cash

Online gamblers are wholly unaware that sites where they place bets are often held for ransom by sophisticated hackers and organized crime syndicates.

These attacks, which can happen either during major sports events or typical daily transactions of money, not only have a Mafia connection, but also are colored by political and ideological commitments and are spread out trans-nationally, according to the British Internet Security Firm known as mi2g.

These criminal hackers typically block access to a website service to extort the operators of the site. They use a series of interrelated computers manned by their associates to unleash potent DDOS (distributed denial of service attacks) which disable the targeted websites.

Then an email threat is sent to the operator demanding between $40,000 to $100,000 to be wired by Western Union. If the operator refuses to pay, the site remains unable to process customer bets, causing a tremendous loss of revenues. Once the money is paid, the extortion group reactivates the service.

"This is almost identical to a Mafia protection racket," according to Dave Matthews, former administrator for Las Vegas Adviser, an online company serving the gaming industry.

With cybercrime becoming the world's most profitable illegal activity, criminologist John McMullan says online gambling sites are targeted for "digital shakedowns" at peak times, such as the 2010 Super Bowl."

Law enforcement officials say these extortion groups are difficult to trace. Most are believed to be located in Russia, Eastern Europe and China.

To alleviate extortion attacks, owners of sports books and online casinos must network together, invest in technological defenses against online extortion and refuse to give in to the demands of high-tech criminals.