And the losses associated with those crimes have soared more than 1,000 percent — from $18 million to $198 million last year. The average loss per victim today? $724.But experts say that’s just the tip of the iceberg because many incidents are not reported. The FBI estimates businesses are losing $67 billion annually to electronic fraud.“High-tech crime is the tsunami that is coming,” Cooley said. “And it’s going to get bigger before it gets smaller.”Identity theft also is soaring as criminals committing electronic fraud gain access to other personal identification in government and business databases. Nearly 9 million people were victims of identity theft nationwide last year.Cooley, who recently added several investigators and prosecutors to his High Technology Crime Division, said he plans to ask the county Board of Supervisors to triple the size of the office to help combat the problem. Employees at a small company in the San Fernando Valley thought their retirement funds were safely secured by a brokerage that managed the money.But in a sophisticated electronic fraud scheme known as “pump and dump,” hackers got into the brokerage firm’s computer system and stole the employees’ nest eggs — hundreds of thousands of dollars worth.“They transferred all of the retirement funds from this liquid account to purchase stock,” District Attorney Steve Cooley said. “They apparently jumped the price of the stock through this huge purchase, sold it, made their profit and moved on.”The case is just one of thousands under investigation as officials say electronic fraud is skyrocketing nationwide. The number of electronic fraud complaints tracked by the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center has more than quadrupled since 2001, rising from 49,711 to 207,492 last year. “The future is grim for innocent people,” Cooley said. “Electronic crime is the new thing that is out there. We are getting more and more crimes committed essentially over the Internet — people stealing money from someone else over the Internet.”In one of those cases, a Nigerian man was sentenced last year to 10 years in prison in connection with the largest case in county history. Oluwatunji Oluwatosin of North Hollywood, along with several co-conspirators, gained access to personal data stored in the national ChoicePoint consumer data network, prosecutors said. The conspirators opened more than 40 fraudulent ChoicePoint accounts and conducted 189,000 searches to obtain personal identifying information. In turn, they used that information to establish fraudulent credit card accounts.The theft resulted in losses exceeding $6.5 million.In another case, two people allegedly planted encoded card-number skimming devices in AM/PM Arco gas stations to record customers’ debit card and PIN numbers, Cooley said.The information was then used to make counterfeit debit cards that allowed them to make unauthorized withdrawals from victims’ bank accounts, Cooley said.More than 7,600 ATM transactions were attempted, amounting to a loss of $1.4 million, Cooley said.Sheriff’s Lt. Rocky Costa, project director of the Southern California High-Tech Task Force, said the cases can be difficult and time-consuming to investigate.“We usually don’t catch the really smart computer criminals,” Costa said. “We usually catch the dumb ones because the really smart computer crooks know how to hide their footprints, will take advantage of host Web sites, wireless networks and Internet cafes.”And Andy Bechtle, assistant to the special agent in charge of the U.S. Secret Service in Los Angeles and a member of the Electronic Crimes Task Force, said the schemes’ sophistication is increasing.“You’ve got everything from phishing scams to people using Internet chat rooms and message boards buying and selling credit card information — which have been stolen from unsecured databases — to just your run-of-the-mill credit card and other types of electronic fraud,” Bechtle said.One common scheme involves cyber-criminals who send “spoofed” e-mails to lead people to counterfeit Web sites designed to trick them into divulging financial data, account-user names and passwords.“Be leery of the sites you are going to,” Bechtle said. “From what I’ve seen and the cases we’ve worked, putting your credit card online is a risky venture because you don’t know how all those private companies set up the security features on their databases.”And users of wireless computers also need to be careful.“I don’t think the public knows how bad things have gotten,” said Kathryn Showers, head deputy district attorney of the High Technology Crimes Division. “For example, there is a practice called ‘war ganging’ where if someone has a wireless laptop, they can come and park outside your home, and if you don’t have a router on the system to protect transmissions, they can monitor what you are doing and use your IP address to commit crimes.”And Costa said the San Fernando Valley retirement fund scheme is similar to a growing number of scams across the country.“What we’re seeing now is thieves who are able to tap into database computers, bank accounts, retirement accounts and stock-trading accounts,” Costa said. “We are starting to see thieves being able to cash our shares, move money into trade accounts and liquidate the accounts. We are starting to see those cases dot up here and there.“Apparently, they are figuring this out, little by little.”[email protected](213) 974-8985160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!