Wi-Fi theft leads to child porn accusation (video)
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Rene Figueroa had never been so scared in all of his 45 years.
He drove up to his home, less than 1/4-mile from Victoria East High School, June 20 to find it crawling with cops, his front door smashed open, a search warrant handed to him.
"I could barely read the search warrant; my hands were shaking so badly," he said.
Arriving back in Victoria from a business trip to Houston, Figueroa first thought all of the sheriff's cars meant someone had been murdered in his house.
Instead, officers had a search warrant to look for child pornography.
He told officers it was a mistake, but Figueroa had to wait outside for three hours, neighbors gawking, as the search continued and deputies seized items from the Pennsylvania Avenue home he shares with his wife and 7-year-old son.
But Figueroa knew they had the wrong man. But he didn't know how or why.
"My knowledge of computers is limited. I log on, I do my reports and I'm out," Figueroa said.
As the investigation continued, he began to suspect someone had stolen his unprotected Wi-Fi to download child porn.
"What if this guy had put something on my computer?" he worried. "I'm going to jail.
"I visualized me losing my family, my house, everything was gone because of our ignorance of not having our Wi-Fi secured."
THE WRONG MAN
Task Force member and Victoria County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Daniel Simons, who supervised the search at Figueroa's home, had doubts early on about his guilt.
Later the day of the search he told Sheriff T. Michael O'Connor that he thought Figueroa might not be involved.
"It's where the evidence took us. Through our investigative leads, we found what we believed to be child pornography being traded from that address," Simons said.
"I had my suspicions early on that it wasn't him, but I believe in taking the investigative process all the way through before I come to any conclusions."
Chief Deputy Terry Simons said completing the forensic investigation was necessary before clearing Figueroa.
"Our actions that day weren't a mistake," the chief deputy said. "We were there under the color of law, authorized by a court to conduct an investigative process that led us to a criminal defendant that I believe will be convicted. It just wasn't Mr. Figueroa."
Once the forensic investigation was completed, Figueroa was cleared.
But to get there, it took about 60 lab hours of investigation to say this person did not do these transfers, the chief deputy said.
Six weeks later, Figueroa's neighbor, Jason Leita, 37, was arrested by the Victoria Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and charged with possession of child pornography. He has since posted bail.
"My family went through a tough ordeal. The bottom line is the authorities had a job to do," Figueroa said. "Unfortunately, we were in the cross fire of the mix."
PROTECT YOUR WI-FI
Now that his name is cleared, Figueroa's main concern is alerting the public to the dangers of unprotected Wi-Fi.
"Please, please, please take this as a warning. Block your Wi-Fi with a password so this doesn't happen to you," he said. "We didn't think anyone would be stealing our Wi-Fi for anything, much less for criminal activities. It's one of the worst nightmares ever that anyone could go through."
Figueroa had added a password to his Wi-Fi in late March, but the damage already had been done. He noticed it began taking longer and longer to access the Internet; his security company recommended a password to prevent others from stealing his signal.
Unfortunately, the task force investigation had begun before that, and his unique IP address was the one officials targeted to investigate.
Other security issues
Having your Wi-Fi used by others without your permission, essentially stealing it, is not the only problem an open Wi-Fi system can cause.
Hackers can use your open Wi-Fi to access information on your computer, experts say.
"If your network is open, just like computing at an airport or coffee shop, everything you do can be sniffed by hackers using man-in-the-middle attacks or installing Trojans, spyware or viruses on your computer," said Rick Farina, wireless security engineer for California-based AirTight Networks.
These attacks can allow identity thieves to steal passwords, Social Security numbers, credit card numbers and more, he said.
The search of Figuroa's home and the subsequent arrest of his neighbor on suspicion of downloading child pornography on the stolen Wi-Fi also leads to some interesting legal questions.
"From a legal standpoint, the main issue may be to prove who actually did the downloading" unless the files were found on the neighbor's computer, said Dimo Michailov, a Washington, D.C., attorney who specializes in cybercrime.
"Open Wi-Fi issues usually involve proving (beyond reasonable doubt, for a criminal case) who did the 'act' since, by definition, an open Wi-Fi can attract a number of other actors," said Michailov, a founding member of the Cybercrime Law Internet magazine.
Michailov also said the serving of the initial search warrant on Figueroa could prove problematic for prosecutors in the Leita case.
"This may involve criminal procedure under local law - I am not familiar with it - but if there are flaws with the search warrant on the open Wi-Fi owner, there may be flaws with the search warrant with the second person," he said.
What happened to Fugeroa - while uncommon - is not unique.
In recent years, about a half dozen cases across the country have involved criminal activity on an open Wi-Fi network without the owner's permission.
Victoria defense attorney George Filley, a one-time prosecutor, sees open Wi-Fi issues opening up legal questions similar to those addressed by Michailov.
"One of the questions that sticks out in my mind: Is there any criminal liability on the owner of the Wi-Fi?" he said.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that bills itself as a defender of the public's rights in the digital age, hopes issues with open Wi-Fi don't force changes in its availability.
"Open wireless networks exist all over - from your local Starbucks, to many major airports, to your neighbor's house down the street. It contributes to the public good, and it's a considerate service to offer," said Adi Kamdar, a foundation activist.
He said exceptional cases like this one should not result in locked-down networks across the country.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is looking for ways to further protect network operators, he said.
The Victoria task force formed because of the increase in Internet crime, officials said. It consists of Victoria County Sheriff's deputies, Victoria police officers and agents of the Office of Homeland Security based in Victoria.
The task force first formed in summer 2011 as part of a nationwide initiative and reorganized again this year.
Since July, the task force has executed eight subpoenas, 10 search warrants and four undercover sting operations.
Including 2011, the task force has made six arrests and developed at least 100 potential cases. At least three more arrests are pending.
The need for the task force is there, Sheriff O'Connor said.
"There are predators out there of all kinds," the sheriff said. "To continue to be a full-service agency and stay ahead of the curve on these things," the task force became a priority."
The local task force is funded in part by the Victoria County District Attorney's asset forfeiture fund.
"We're using bad guys' money to do good things," said O'Connor. He said some software support also came from the district attorney's office and some money from the sheriff's office general fund.
The sheriff's office has eight officers trained in cybercrimes, Daniel Simons said. They have received a cybercrime investigation certificate issued by the state after taking a 40-hour course. They also have received specialized digital forensics training, he said.
"This sheriff's office is equipped to investigate child pornography and child predation cases," Chief Deputy Simons said, acknowledging special training is needed because Internet criminals also are good at what they do.
"These people are fairly sophisticated in their trading of child porn. It's not all child pornography either; there is also child solicitation," he said. "Our investigators are able to track them with great specificity. "
The sheriff said the task force's work will continue.
"People need to realize the severity of the problem," O'Connor said. "It doesn't stop once school starts."
Figueroa, even after what he has gone through, supports the task force.
"I am proud of these guys. They have a tough job. They're doing a good job getting these people off the street," he said.
Figueroa isn't angry at law enforcement; that has abated since June 20 - though he would like his broken door fixed - and has moved on with his life.
"They have apologized," he said, singling out Daniel Simons and Deputy Michael Henry as being particularly sympathetic and helpful. "Sheriff O'Connor personally apologized to me and promised to fix the door."
But Figueroa said he has more than a broken door to fix.
"We're victims here, too," he said. "The children are obviously the main victims, but to be put in this situation, we're victims. And it's not fun to be a victim."
Figueroa said his support group group and his faith have helped him get through the ordeal.
"The neighbors who know me, knew it wasn't me," said the representative for several national credit unions.
"The most supportive was my wife. She had to hear me gripe, complain, cry and get very angry at times. We prayed together a lot."
A drummer who once played in a Christian rock band and continues to play at his church, Figueroa said he is just a regular guy.
"We're normal people trying to raise a 7-year-old son," he said. "I'm a Little League baseball coach, a football coach and volunteer at his school."
He also hopes the incident can lead to a better relationship among his other neighbors.
"I don't hang out with very many of my neighbors ...," he said. "We'd like to have a block party later this year and get to know our other neighbors and try to rebuild the neighborhood once all this is said and done."