Computer crime -- don't try this at home

By now, many people may know that erasing something from your computer hard drive is practically impossible.

Sure, you can delete the file but that just means you can’t find it. Computer experts know the information continues residing on your computer’s hard drive until it’s overwritten by some future document or program.

Until then – and maybe even later -- experts can recover the information and that includes the ones who work for the FBI and other investigatory agencies. It’s been the undoing of more than a few criminal masterminds.

In last week’s trial in the starvation death of Danieal Kelly, the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court jury heard testimony about how Mickal Kamuvaka, a founder and chief administrator of MultiEthnic Behavioral Health Inc. turned to the computer to try to solve a thorny problem.

Kamuvaka’s company had a contract with Philadelphia’s Department of Human Resources to provide caseworkers who would visit the homes of children considered at risk of neglect or abuse. Among MultiEthnic’s cases was Danieal Kelly, 14, a girl with cerebral palsy who could not care for herself, who lived in a two-bedroom apartment in West Philadelphia with her mother and eight siblings.

On Aug. 4, 2006, Kamuvaka had a problem. Danieal had starved to death in nightmarish conditions, her back pocked with deep bedsores, an agonizing death medical experts said took months.

DHS officials wanted to know what happened and told Kamuvaka a courier would stop by at 4 p.m. to pick up Danieal’s file for an official review. Kamuvaka’s problem was that her caseworker had not visited Danieal’s house since about April 2006 instead of the twice-a-week DHS was paying Kamuvaka to provide. The case file was all but empty of notes and documentation.

Kamuvaka, according to trial testimony, convened an “all-hands” meeting of employees to create a file to give DHS, one that would document visits and observations that never happened. The “forgery fest,” as prosecutors called it, created a case file for the DHS courier to collect, followed by an addendum Kamuvaka faxed later that night.

Despite all the hard work and back-dating to create the files, John Newcomb, a forensic computer examiner for the federal Department of Health and Human Services, told the jury it did not take much to crack the case.

Regardless of the date you put on a document created on a computer, Newcomb told the jury, the actual time is logged in a portion of the computer brain called the CMOS (Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor) or BIOS (Basic Input/Output System), which contains a clock that is started when the computer is created.

By checking the CMOS clock against the time and date the documents were purportedly created, Newcomb said he was able to determine that the Danieal Kelly case filed was created during the afternoon and early evening of Aug. 4, 2006 – not over the previous four months.

From a legal standpoint, there was another downside: the jury is permitted to infer that creating false documents means the creator has something to feel guilty about.

Which is arguably why the jury found Kamuvaka guilty of criminal conspiracy, perjury, forgery and tampering with public records.