U.K. on Alert for Russian Hackers

CHELTENHAM, England -- First it was American football's Super Bowl. Now Britain's Cheltenham horse racing festival. Internet betting sites again are on red alert.

For they could be targeted in one of Britain's biggest betting weeks of the year by gangs threatening to knock them offline unless they pay protection money.

These are not just amateur hackers out to make a fast buck. Britain's National Hi-Tech Crime Unit says all their intelligence points to organized crime being involved.

Both police and security experts believe gangs in Eastern Europe and Russia have latched onto the age-old protection scam with a cyber twist -- paralyzing the gambling operation's computer network with a flood of bogus data requests.

In January, one target in the run-up to the Super Bowl was Curacao-based VIP Management Services, which runs seven gambling sites.

Extortionists demanded $30,000 by e-mail. "They essentially said 'pay up or you will go down for the Super Bowl,'" VIP Management Service's managing director Alistair Assheton said. Assheton ignored the demand and survived unscathed. Industry officials and police said other sites were not so lucky.

Cheltenham's three-day festival attracts big gamblers who fearlessly take on the bookmakers with bundles of cash. On the course alone, ?2 million ($3.5 million) are bet on every race.

On the net, betting fever is just as high, and such a huge turnover could tempt racketeers to strike again, industry observers and law enforcement say.

Betfair.com, one of the world's largest online gambling operations, takes in over ?50 million per week in betting volume. "This is probably our biggest week," spokesman Hugh Taggart said of the meeting, which starts Tuesday.

The smooth running of online betting over Cheltenham is so crucial because a sustained outage could cripple a young betting site's business operation for the year and deflate a multi-billion-pound business sector still trying to establish the public's trust.

That is why a new wave of protection rackets being launched will set alarm bells ringing.

"We are aware of the threat to the online industry," said Taggart. "At such a critical moment, we are taking every precaution to ensure the security of the site and the security of customers' funds."

The National Hi-Tech Crime Unit says it does not have specific intelligence about the Cheltenham festival being hit. But police say there has been no let-up to the shakedown racket, which has been on the rise over the past six months.

The list of victims continues to mount for gambling operations inside Britain and beyond. But the crime wave, which dates back at least three years, has yet to yield any arrests, officers added.

However, police see a ray of hope. Cyber extortion attempts, once the industry's dirty little secret, are now being reported to the police with greater frequency, increasing the odds of an arrest.