Cyberthieves looted ATMs of $45 million in just a few hours

Hackers first infiltrated system of an Indian credit-card processing company

Written by New York Times | New York | Published: May 10, 2013 4:18:46 am

MARC SANTORA

It WAS a huge bank heist – but a 21st-century version in which the robbers never wore ski masks,threatened a teller or set foot in a vault.

Yet,in two precision operations that involved people in more than two dozen countries acting in close coordination and with surgical precision,the organization was able to steal $45 million from thousands of ATMs in a matter of hours.

In New York City alone,the thieves responsible for ATM withdrawals struck 2,904 machines over 10 hours on Feb. 19,withdrawing $2.4 million.

On Thursday,federal prosecutors in Brooklyn unsealed an indictment charging eight members of the New York crew — including their suspected ringleader Alberto Lajud-Pena,23,who was found dead in the Dominican Republic on April 27 – offering a glimpse into what authorities said was one of the most sophisticated and effective cybercrime attacks ever uncovered.

“In the place of guns and masks,this cybercrime organization used laptops and the Internet,” said Loretta E Lynch,the US attorney in Brooklyn. “Moving as swiftly as data over the Internet,the organization worked its way from the computer systems of international corporations to the streets of New York City,with the defendants fanning out across Manhattan to steal millions of dollars from hundreds of ATMs in a matter of hours.”

The indictment outlined how they were able to steal data from banks,relay information to a far-flung network of “cashing crews”,and then launder stolen money by buying high-end luxury items like Rolex watches and expensive cars.

In the first robbery,hackers were able to infiltrate the system of an unnamed Indian credit-card processing company handling Visa and MasterCard prepaid debit cards.

The hackers — not named in the indictment — proceeded to raise the withdrawal limits on prepaid MasterCard debit accounts issued by the National Bank of Ras Al-Khaimah,also known as RAKBANK,in United Arab Emirates.

By eliminating withdrawal limits,“even a few compromised account numbers can result in tremendous financial loss to victim financial institution,” the indictment states.

With five account numbers in hand,the hackers distributed the information to individuals in 20 countries who then encoded the information on magnetic stripe cards. On Dec. 21,the “cashing crews” made 4,500 ATM transactions worldwide,stealing $5 million,according to the indictment.

But that robbery was just a prelude for what prosecutors said was a more brazen crime two months later. On Feb. 19,“cashing crews” stood at the ready at ATMs across Manhattan and in two dozen other countries waiting for word to spring into action.

This time,the hackers infiltrated a credit-card processing company based in the US that also handles Visa and MasterCard prepaid debit cards. The company’s name was not revealed in the indictment.

After securing 12 account numbers for cards issued by the Bank of Muscat in Oman and raising the withdrawal limits,the cashing crews were set in motion. Starting at 3 pm,the crews made 36,000 transactions and withdrew about $40 million from machines in the various countries in about 10 hours. In NYC alone,a team of eight people made 2,904 withdrawals,stealing $2.4 million.

Surveillance photos of one suspect hitting various ATMs showed the man’s backpack getting heavier and heavier,Lynch said,comparing the robbery to the caper in Ocean’s 11.

Law enforcement agencies in more than a dozen countries,including Japan,Canada,Germany and Romania,have been involved in the investigation,prosecutors said.

All seven charged with conspiracy to commit “access device fraud” and money laundering were US citizens. NYT

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