COMPUTER hackers in the United States are believed to be behind a plot to extort money from small business companies based in Ireland.
The Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation has started investigations into a number of complaints about cyber attacks on its computer systems. Detectives believe that small-time criminals are responsible for the attacks and point out that their demands for cash to stop the companies being targeted involve relatively small amounts of money.
The gardai began receiving complaints about the incidents on Thursday and said they expected an increase in the number of companies being selected by the hackers.
The fraud bureau, which has a computer crime section, has already consulted specialists from the cyber crime centre at UCD in Dublin and asked for assistance with their inquiries.
The cyber criminals operate by hacking into the company's computer systems and then creating chaos by encrypting their data.
They follow up with demands for money for the information on codes required to release the information blocked by the encryption.
In one case, a company reported that the hackers had issued a demand for $700.
Officers say that the criminals appear to be targeting small companies with inadequate security systems and firewalls to prevent the gang hacking into the database.
They have appealed to companies, who have been singled out by the hackers, to contact the gardai immediately.
Among those already hit are a transport company in the west of Ireland and an engineering firm in the midlands.
Apart from working closely with the gardai, the UCD centre also liaises with the private sector and provides training and research for banks, credit card companies and other financial institutions.