Spring 2008 Issue

Spring 2008 Issue

Welcome to The Wild, Wild West

State's attorney and Barry alum David Sherman spends his days in the vast and borderless world of cyber crime

By Paige Stein

The Wild, Wild West

David Sherman '91, believes that anonymity can be dangerous, and in the wrong hands, very dangerous. That is why, as supervisor of the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Cyber Crimes Unit, Sherman wanted to make sure that Mayor Carlos Alvarez's plan to build a countywide wireless-Internet system allowed users to access the system only after signing up with proof of identity (as opposed to a system that allowed for an open and anonymous access).

While Sherman says he fully supported the Mayor's ambitious plan to build a countywide system, he was concerned that an anonymous plan could hinder law enforcement efforts to investigate child exploitation cases, terrorism, fraud and other crimes. The plan, initially announced in 2006, would have blanketed all 2,000 square miles of Miami-Dade County with wireless technology and would have allowed anyone in the county to access the Internet.

''No government-run Internet service should allow for anonymous Web-surfing. Otherwise, the government and county becomes a conduit for criminals to commit financial and more imp ortantly violent, particularly sex crimes," Sherman was quoted as saying in a recent Miami Herald story.

Wearing a dark blue suit and sitting in his office in a government building near the Miami airport, there's nothing "Wild West" about Sherman – except, of course, his territory. Despite the fact that it's been nearly two decades since the advent of the Internet, regulation remains thorny, consistently butting up against right-to-privacy issues and questions of jurisdiction.

"He's undertaking a new area of the law, one that's not well explored," said Detective Gordon Angus. Assigned to the Miami-Dade Police Department's Forensic Computer Lab, Angus has been working with Sherman for the past five years. "Only the really big offices have [cyber crimes units]. It's a bold new step for the state's attorney's office and David is the attorney at the forefront."

One of the difficulties facing police officers and prosecutors is that it's difficult to enforce laws and prosecute crimes when the perpetrators could literally be anywhere – or many places at once.

"[Traditionally] when people commit fraud, they commit it in one location. However, when you're dealing with Internet fraud, there could be multiple locations," said Sherman, whose job it is to prosecute cases involving electronic crimes, including fraud and child sexual exploitation. "Let's say you buy something online, through eBay or someplace, then someone contacts you privately and tells you they prefer to use Western Union for payment, and they have someone else go and pick up the money. You have a victim sitting in one place, a computer terminal in another place, and a [a money transfer] to a third location. It can be very difficult to determine jurisdiction."

Jurisdiction in cyber crime is often determined on a case-by-case basis, Sherman explained. "If it's mortgage fraud [for example], we determine where the real estate closing took place, where the paperwork was signed and where the taxes are paid. If it took place in Miami-Dade, it's simple."

Prosecuting cyber crimes was not necessarily a simple fit for Sherman who says he took one computer class at Barry and "never had a passion for anything technical."

"I knew about 10 percent of what everyone else knew," he said.

After graduating from Barry and then Emory Law School in 1994, Sherman worked in private practice for a couple of years before learning about an opening for an assistant prosecutor at the State attorney's office in Miami. "I started at the county court division, where misdemeanor crimes are prosecuted; almost everyone starts there."

After three months, Sherman was promoted to supervisor where he was responsible for overseeing "everything that goes on in the courtroom" from the prosecution's side and critiquing the courtroom performance of fellow prosecutors if a case ended up going to trial.

"When you're a brand-new prosecutor, everything excites you," he said. "It's a challenge; you're working with lawyers who have 15 or 20 years more experience than you."

Next, Sherman was appointed the assistant chief of DUI prosecutions. Both the prosecution and the defense of these types of cases, he notes, are "hyper-technical."

"They are as complicated as a murder case; although they might not rise to the level of importance unless someone is killed as a result," said Sherman, who was named a Prosecutor of Distinction by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in June of 2000.

Then, after an eight-month stint prosecuting general felony cases, such as assault with a firearm and robbery, Sherman transferred to sex crimes and took on the emotionally exhausting task of prosecuting cases of serial rape and child molestation. Single adult rape cases are handled by the general felony division or the domestic violence unit, Sherman explained.

In order to prepare himself to try cases in which "the facts are so compelling and there is so much sadness," Sherman received specialized training and was counseled by more experienced prosecutors in the unit.

Although always disturbing, prosecuting sex crimes cases, especially those involving a minor, is a balancing act: "You are emotionally involved, but you can't be blinded. You have to ask yourself whether you can prove your case beyond a reasonable doubt."

In making a decision, Sherman says he relied on a variety of sources from therapists to guardian ad litems. "[You] always ask the victim's therapist if testifying in court would damage or impede the victim's recovery; a lot of them, if not most, heal and find ways to cope," he said. "We all have a constant struggle with something. There are countless people [you meet] and don't know that they have been victims. They grow up the same way you and I have."

After two years in the sex crimes unit, Sherman was emotionally burned out and looking for a change.

"The hardest cases were the ones where you knew for a fact there had been abuse, but you couldn't prosecute because of a lack of physical evidence. That's enough for some children to think that because the case isn't prosecuted, it means someone doesn't believe them."

At a colleague's suggestion, Sherman joined the State Attorney's Economic Crimes Unit in September of 2002.

"From 2001 to 2004 corporate fraud like the Enron case was all over the news, and I really had the urge to learn something new," he said.

As a new "frontier" in law enforcement, cyber crime is a much vaster territory than most people realize, Angus explained.

"Most people think that cyber crime only refers to crime that occurs on the Internet," he said, "but it really covers any crime in which digital evidence is involved. If you listen to crime reports, you'd be surprised at how many stories relate to the seizure and examination of computers. It could include a computer used in planning a homicide or e-mails that have information about running drugs."

Although murder and terrorism-related cases involving computer evidence grab big headlines, Sherman says lesser crimes such as Internet fraud frequently go unreported because people often feel that there wasn't enough money involved to pursue a complaint or they are ashamed of having been taken.

"I think a lot of people are embarrassed about having been defrauded on the Internet," he said. "But I've known judges who were defrauded and successful business people who are seen as being very responsible by others who were defrauded because they didn't see the red flags."

One popular scam, Sherman says, involves buying a car or other big ticket item on the Internet. The would-be criminal posing as a broker for a buyer contacts the seller of a big-ticket item, such as a $12,000 car or boat. The "broker" tells the seller that he had already brokered a deal for this buyer for a more expensive $18,000 car or boat, but unfortunately the deal fell through. So, instead of getting another cashier's check, the "broker" offers to "just" give it to the seller, who is then asked to write a check for the difference ($6000 in this example) back to the "broker" or phantom buyer.

But, of course, there's no real way to verify that the cashier's check is legitimate when you go to a bank to deposit it. "There is no rule or law that says a check has to come from a bank or that it has to have a legitimate routing number," Sherman said. "Everybody thinks there's something magical about the blocks of numbers at the bottom, but there isn't."

The bottom line, he says, is that the Internet remains a very dangerous place, especially for children.

"It's like the Wild West of the 1800s. It's certainly not a place where parents should allow their kids to roam freely," he said. "Even though many parents use it almost as a babysitter, it's the exact opposite. Kids should have tremendous supervision while using the Internet. Parents should know what sites they're children are visiting, who they're talking to and exactly what they're doing."

Potential exploitation by child predators is just one of the many reasons why Sherman says he was opposed to one potential application of Miami-Dade's now-scrapped, or vastly scaled down, wireless plan. During the planning process, the County considered alternative versions, including a plan with no user identification, and one where users would have to register and log-on each time to access the wireless system. (Instead of countywide wireless broadband access, four temporary hot spots, providing free Wi-Fi access, will be created in public parks courtesy of Motorola, Nortel, Cisco and Wialan.)

"According to one of the mayor's (original potential) plans, you would have had a wireless access system run by the county, which would have had no verification process to log on," Sherman said. "You could sit in your home, office or any street corner in Miami-Dade and commit crimes and no one would be able to track you. There would have been no record-keeping pursuant to subpoenas, court orders or search warrants."

Rather than upholding the right to free speech, he argues, unfettered wireless access will have opposite effect. "There would be so much criminal conduct on the Web that it would abridge free speech. Law abiding citizens would never use it. It would be a network of thieves, molesters and other criminals."

And, Sherman, who says his work as a prosecutor "is the only thing he likes to do or has had that level of interest in" is more than happy to continue fighting cyber crime. "I'm not the type to plan out the next stepping stone of my career. I think the most important thing is to like and feel proud of what you do."