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FBI Phish Phry reels in 53 scam suspects
WASHINGTON (10/9/09)--The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began arresting 53 individuals in the U.S. Wednesday on charges of conducting a vast financial fraud based on phishing or tricking Internet users into revealing their bank account information at two of the nation's largest banks--Bank of America and Wells Fargo. Operation Phish Phry netted arrests in Southern California, Nevada and North Carolina, said the FBI. In addition, 47 co-conspirators in Egypt are being charged by authorities there. This is the largest number of defendants ever charged in a cybercrime case, said the FBI in a press release. The group allegedly stole at least $2 million from 2007 through September 2009 from hundreds and perhaps thousands of the banks' customers. Indictments in a U.S. District Court in Los Angeles accuse three California residents of masterminding the U.S. portion of the scam--Kenneth Joseph Lucas, 25; a friend, Jonathan Preston Clarke; and Nichole Michelle Merzi, Lucas' former girlfriend. They directed associates to recruit "runners" to set up bank accounts to receive funds stolen from the compromised accounts. The online component of the scam initiated in Egypt, where defendants sent mass e-mail messages that appeared to come from the banks, said the FBI. Recipients who clicked on a link in the messages were sent to a fake website identical or similar to the banks' sites, where they were asked to enter information such as their account numbers, passwords, Social Security numbers and drivers' license numbers. The U.S. group would transfer funds into their own accounts and remit money back to accomplices in Egypt. Each of the 53 defendants named in the indictment is charged with conspiracy to commit bank fraud and wire fraud, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. Various defendants also are charged with bank fraud; aggravated identity theft; conspiracy to commit computer fraud, specifically unauthorized access to protected computers in connection with fraudulent bank transfers; and domestic and international money laundering. Some analysts said the arrests won't have much impact on the number of online banking scams that have hit businesses, including credit unions. Many other groups are involved in similar fraudulent phish schemes, they said (The New York Times Oct. 8).
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