More than 130 people and $17 million have been seized so far this year in nationwide operations by the FBI and other agencies to stop cybercrime, the U.S. Department of Justice (JD) announced May 16. Although JD officials weren’t immediately available for comment, internet safety experts agreed that students are among the most common targets for such crimes.

JD dubbed the effort “Operation E-con,” a collection of separate investigations targeting investment scams, sales of stolen software, online banking fraud—and even a purported Russian marriage service.

Attorney General John Ashcroft called the program “a decisive, nationally coordinated effort to root out and take action against some of the leading online, economic crime.” He was joined at a news conference by FBI Director Robert Mueller and other top JD officials.

Officials estimated the collective losses across more than 90 investigations at $176 million, affecting 89,000 victims.

The cases involved the FBI, Secret Service, Customs Service, IRS, Postal Inspection Service, Federal Trade Commission, and state and local police agencies.

“[Operation E-con demonstrates] we have a commitment,” said Dan Larkin, the FBI’s senior representative to the Internet Fraud and Complaint Center, based in West Virginia. “This is of high importance to the American public, who are increasingly finding themselves part of these schemes.”

In one case, suspects used a web site to sell more than $2 million worth of pharmaceutical drugs without prescriptions or the involvement of any doctors. In another case, approximately 400 victims lost about $3,000 each in a scheme that promised lonely men the hope of marrying a Russian woman.

Mueller repeatedly has stressed that cybercrime is among his priorities. Such cases can be difficult to solve, however, because they frequently involve overseas connections and digital evidence easy for perpetrators to erase or falsify.

“The internet enables criminals to cloak themselves in anonymity,” Ashcroft said.

At the news conference, Mueller called the problem of cybercrime “large and growing,” noting that complaints increased 300 percent last year to 48,000. To meet the challenge, Mueller has pledged a robust cybercrime division at FBI headquarters and has created what he described as 60 specialized cybersquads around the country.

Cyber criminals often target teens because of their innocence, said Teri Schroeder, founder and chief executive of i-Safe America Inc., a national nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping children safe online.

“Kids are ending up in situations they are not aware of,” Schroeder said. “These are situations that have real-life consequences.”

Schools can play a role in making students aware of the dangers that lurk online, she said, noting that i-Safe teaches kids to use the four Rs: to recognize, refuse, respond to, and report internet crimes.