Cyber crooks have become so organized and businesslike that they use online forums to advertise illegal wares, buy and sell computer viruses, and traffic in stolen identities -- all for huge profits.

Besides fueling an underground criminal economy, the Internet is increasingly being exploited by terrorists and spies, the FBI's top cyber experts said at a recent international conference on cyber security.

For about $30, one of our undercover agents explained, cyber crooks anywhere in the world can buy a blank credit card, complete with the holographic security markings used by legitimate credit card companies. They can buy equipment to encode someone's stolen identity information onto the card. And they can buy software to verify that the unsuspecting victim's credit is good, so that anyone using the phony card will not raise suspicions at the checkout counter.

"The sophistication of our adversaries is growing," Shawn Henry, head of our Cyber Division, told about 400 participants from 37 countries at the first International Conference on Cyber Security. The conference was held last week at Fordham University in New York City and was sponsored by the university and our New York office, bringing together our cyber experts and their international counterparts from law enforcement, industry, government, and academia.

The three-day event, which featured a variety of speakers and panel discussions, was organized to find global solutions to emerging cyber threats. "The FBI's goal of sponsoring this conference is to build and forge long-lasting relationships to combat terrorist and criminal use of the Internet," said Joseph Demarest, who heads our New York Office. "The conference is the beginning of greater cooperation on all cyber matters."

The key to fighting cyber crime, conference participants agreed, is through international cooperation.

A good example of that cooperation is today's international 24/7 network of cyber investigators. The network, established among the G8 nations in 1997, has since grown to 55 member countries, all of which have dedicated cyber crime investigators who can respond to fast-moving cases at a moment's notice -- often with the ability to "fast freeze" e-mail traffic and other stored electronic data, which can preserve a crook's otherwise fleeting digital footprint.

Here's a hypothetical example of how the network operates: A cyber crook hacks into a bank in Mexico City. Mexican investigators trace the computer used in the attack to New York City, and quickly contact FBI agents, who discover that the New York computer is linked to a computer South Korea. They alert Korean agents, who learn that the attack originated in Bangkok. Thai agents make the arrest. Thanks to the network, the investigative process may take hours or days instead of weeks or months.

This level of timely cooperation is essential. But cooperation needs to go hand in hand with consistent laws for cyber crimes, said Christopher Painter, deputy assistant director of our cyber division. Uniform penalties must be adopted, or savvy cyber crooks will simply base their operations in countries with the most lax cyber laws.

"The bottom line is to make sure there are consequences for criminal cyber actions and similar consequences everywhere," Painter explained. "The bad guys need to know there is no free ride."