Bill Gates has joined forces with West Virginia University and other area institutions to fight computer crime and prepare tomorrows cyber sleuths.

Gatessoftware company, Microsoft, has donated $46,000 in software and provided a full-time analyst to the National Cyber-Forensics and Training Alliance. WVU , Carnegie Mellon University, the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center formed the alliance two years ago to investigate online offenses such as identity theft and study computer criminalsM.O.s. It is based in both Morgantown and Pittsburgh.

Cyber crime is a problem thats going to be around for a while, and its going to be a hard problem to solve,said George Trapp, a WVU computer science professor involved in the project.

The Universitys role in this is to produce more computer forensic experts who understand the problem and can help with solutions,Trapp added.We will also bring existing professionals up to speed as well.

Computer forensics consists of examining computer software, servers and other digital devices for hidden evidence of a crime; preserving the evidence; and various legal issues.

WVU s Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering plans to offer a five-course, graduate certificate program in computer forensics. Professor Roy Nutter teaches courses on the subject in a lab in Brooks Hall. Sgt. Chris Casto, a West Virginia state trooper and computer forensics analyst, works out of an adjoining lab and often speaks to Nutters students.

Its analogous to a teaching hospital where the students dont perform surgery but learn from those who do,Trapp said.

The education component is critical, Trapp explained, because computer crime has evolved over the years from buying something on the Internet and not receiving it to phishing and other scams that attempt to obtain computer userspersonal information.

Phishing, for example, involves sending phony e-mail to customers of financial institutions, asking them to update their accounts by providing credit card information, Social Security numbers and pass codes. Identity theft stemming from phishing defrauds consumers collectively of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The tactics of spammers, hackers and other online con artists are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and as a company, Microsoft is dedicating resources to help law enforcement find those responsible for harming consumers,said Nancy Anderson, deputy general counsel for the software giant.

The Microsoft analyst will focus on data related to phishing, work with the alliance to see that law enforcement has timely industry data and help prepare training programs for police.

Meanwhile, the alliance is in the process of fine-tuning its organizational structure, Trapp said. It is forming a board of directors; Nutter represents WVU on the board.

Next, the group will seek to add more members by approaching the private sector, Trapp added. A benefit for member businesses would be computer forensics education for their information technology professionals.

This support from Microsoft is a much-needed shot in the arm for the alliance and its efforts,he added.