LOS ANGELES: Investigators in the United States and Egypt have smashed a computer phishing identity theft scam described as the biggest cyber-crime investigation in US history, officials said Wednesday.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation said 33 people were arrested across the United States early Wednesday while authorities in Egypt charged 47 more people linked to the scam.
A total of 53 suspects were named in connection with the scam in a federal grand jury indictment, the FBI said.
Authorities said the sophisticated identity theft network had gathered information from thousands of victims which was used to defraud American banks.
Wednesday s arrests were the culmination of a two-year probe involving US and Egyptian officials dubbed Operation Phish Phry.
The investigation was described in statement as the largest cybercrime investigation to date in the United States.
A series of raids early Wednesday resulted in arrests in California, Nevada and North Carolina.
A 51-count US indictment accuses all defendants with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud while various defendants are charged with aggravated identity theft and conspiracy to commit computer fraud.
The charges facing US defendants potentially carry up to 20 years in federal prison, Assistant US Attorney Wes Hsu said.
Some suspects, including alleged ringleader Kenneth Lucas, face additional charges including bank fraud and international money laundering. Lucas was awaiting an initial court appearance Wednesday and authorities didn t know if he had been assigned a defense lawyer.
This may sound like run-of-the-mill bank fraud but it is much more serious, said Keith Bolcar, acting assistant director in charge of the FBI in Los Angeles. This form of theft presents us with a new and elaborate form of con artist.
The sophistication with which Phish Phry defendants operated represents an evolving and troubling paradigm in the way identity theft is now committed, Bolcar added.
Criminally savvy groups recruit here and abroad to pool tactics and skills necessary to commit organized theft facilitated by the computer, including hacking, fraud and identity theft, with a common greed and shared willingness to victimize Americans.
At the center of the scam were spam e-mails masquerading as legitimate requests from banks and asking customers to submit personal information online. As part of the scam, millions of these so-called phishing messages were sent out using automated programs, authorities said.
According to an unsealed indictment, Egyptian-based hackers obtained bank account numbers and personal information from bank customers through phishing, and then hacked into accounts at two unidentified banks.
Once compromised accounts had been accessed, hackers in Egypt contacted conspirators based in the United States via text messages, phone calls and Internet chatrooms to arrange transfer of cash to fraudulent accounts.
According to the indictment, hackers in Egypt worked with cohorts in the US to collect bank account information, then illegally accessed those accounts and transferred money to newly created fraudulent accounts.
FBI Special Agent Jason Smolanoff said there were thousands of victims in the US. The amount of cash stolen was somewhere between $1 million to $2 million, primarily from Bank of America and Wells Fargo accounts.
This international phishing ring had a significant impact on two banks and caused huge headaches for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bank customers, acting US Attorney George Cardona said in a statement.
Federal authorities in Los Angeles praised the cooperation they received from their Egyptian counterparts, and said the indictment represented the largest identity-theft operation ever in terms of the number of defendants.
The investigation comes hard on the heels of a security breach targeting thousands of Microsoft Hotmail accounts.
Cyber-crooks evidently used phishing tactics to dupe users of Microsoft s free Web-based email service into revealing account and access information, according to the US technology giant. -Agencies