National News

May 10, 2013

Feds in NYC: Hackers stole $45M in ATM card breach

NEW YORK — A worldwide gang of criminals stole $45 million in a matter of hours by hacking their way into a database of prepaid debit cards and then draining cash machines around the globe, federal prosecutors said Thursday — and outmoded U.S. card technology may be partly to blame.

Seven people are under arrest in the U.S. in connection with the case, which prosecutors said involved thousands of thefts from ATMs using bogus magnetic swipe cards carrying information from Middle Eastern banks. The fraudsters moved with astounding speed to loot financial institutions around the world, working in cells including one in New York, Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said.

She called it “a massive 21st-century bank heist” carried out by brazen thieves.

One of the suspects was caught on surveillance cameras, his backpack increasingly loaded down with cash, authorities said. Others took photos of themselves with giant wads of bills as they made their way up and down Manhattan.

Here’s how it worked:

Hackers got into bank databases, eliminated withdrawal limits on pre-paid debit cards and created access codes. Others loaded that data onto any plastic card with a magnetic stripe — an old hotel key card or an expired credit card worked fine as long as it carried the account data and correct access codes.

A network of operatives then fanned out to rapidly withdraw money in multiple cities, authorities said. The cells would take a cut of the money, then launder it through expensive purchases or ship it wholesale to the global ringleaders. Lynch didn’t say where they were located.

It appears no individuals lost money. The thieves plundered funds held by the banks that back up prepaid credit cards, not individual or business accounts, Lynch said.

She called it a “virtual criminal flash mob,” and a security analyst said it was the biggest ATM fraud case she had heard of.

There were two separate attacks, one in December that reaped $5 million worldwide and one in February that snared about $40 million in 10 hours with about 36,000 transactions. The scheme involved attacks on two banks, Rakbank in the United Arab Emirates and the Bank of Muscat in Oman, prosecutors said.

The plundered ATMs were in Japan, Russia, Romania, Egypt, Colombia, Britain, Sri Lanka, Canada and several other countries, and law enforcement agencies from more than a dozen nations were involved in the investigation, U.S. prosecutors said.

The accused ringleader in the U.S. cell, Alberto Yusi Lajud-Pena, was reportedly killed in the Dominican Republic late last month, prosecutors said. More investigations continue and other arrests have been made in other countries, but prosecutors did not have details.

An indictment unsealed Thursday accused Lajud-Pena and the other seven New York suspects of withdrawing $2.8 million in cash from hacked accounts in less than a day.

Such ATM fraud schemes are not uncommon, but the $45 million stolen in this one was at least double the amount involved in previously known cases, said Avivah Litan, an analyst who covers security issues for Gartner Inc.

Middle Eastern banks and payment processors are “a bit behind” on security and screening technologies that are supposed to prevent this kind of fraud, but it happens around the world, she said.

“It’s a really easy way to turn digits into cash,” Litan said.

Some of the fault lies with the ubiquitous magnetic strips on the back of the cards. The rest of the world has largely abandoned cards with magnetic strips in favor of ones with built-in chips that are nearly impossible to copy. But because U.S. banks and merchants have stuck to cards with magnetic strips, they are still accepted around the world.

Lynch would not say who masterminded the attacks globally, who the hackers are or where they were located, citing an ongoing investigation.

The New York suspects were U.S. citizens originally from the Dominican Republic, lived in the New York City suburb orf Yonkers and were mostly in their 20s. Lynch said they all knew one another and were recruited together, as were cells in other countries. They were charged with conspiracy and money laundering. If convicted, they face 10 years in prison.

Arrests began in March.

Lajud-Pena was found dead with a suitcase full of about $100,000 in cash, and the investigation into his death is continuing separately. Dominican officials said they arrested a man in the killing who said it was a botched robbery, and two other suspects were on the lam.

The first federal study of ATM fraud was 30 years ago, when the use of computers in the financial community was growing rapidly. At the time, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found nationwide ATM bank loss from fraud ranged from $70 and $100 million a year.

By 2008, that had risen to about $1 billion a year, said Ken Pickering, who works in security intelligence at CORE Security, a white-hat hacking firm that offers security to businesses.

He said he expects news of the latest ring to inspire other criminals.

“Once you see a large attack like this, that they made off with $45 million, that’s going to wake up the cybercrime community,” he said.

“Ripping off cash, you don’t get that back,” he said. “There are suitcases full of cash floating around now, and that’s just gone.”

1
Text Only
National News
  • A year after background check defeat, modest goals

    Democratic worries about this November’s elections, a lack of Senate votes and House opposition are forcing congressional gun-control supporters to significantly winnow their 2014 agenda, a year after lawmakers scuttled President Barack Obama’s effort to pass new curbs on firearms.

    April 16, 2014

  • Dress codes: Where should schools set limits?

    They’re called leggings — popular fashion items that are tight-fitting pants to some, and glorified tights to others.

    April 16, 2014

  • 10 Things to Know for Today

    Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about today.

    April 16, 2014

  • Police: Suspected killers wore GPS devices

    Two convicted sex offenders dutifully checked in with police every month and wore their GPS trackers around the clock — the rules of parole that are designed to tip off authorities if a freed felon backslides.

    April 15, 2014

  • Questions linger year after Boston Marathon bombs

    A surveillance video shows a man prosecutors say is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev placing a bomb near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, just yards from where an 8-year-old boy was killed when it exploded.

    April 15, 2014

  • 10 Things to Know for Tuesday

    Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Tuesday:

    April 15, 2014

  • Aw, geez, 'Fargo' is on TV with Billy Bob Thornton

    After failed attempts and broken dreams, by golly, someone went and put “Fargo” on series TV.

    April 15, 2014

  • Little sign of progress as Obama, Putin speak

    Speaking for the first time in more than two weeks, President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin showed little sign of agreement Monday, with the U.S. leader urging pro-Russian forces to de-escalate the situation in eastern Ukraine and Putin denying that Moscow was interfering in the region.

    April 14, 2014

  • Drivers in California crash had clean records

    Both drivers in the fiery Northern California crash involving a FedEx truck and bus full of students had clean driving records.

    April 14, 2014

  • Post, Guardian win Pulitzers for NSA revelations

    The Washington Post and The Guardian won the Pulitzer Prize in public service Monday for revealing the U.S. government’s sweeping surveillance programs in a blockbuster series of stories based on secret documents supplied by NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

    April 14, 2014