NEW YORK – A bloodless bank heist that netted more than $45 million has left even cybercrime experts impressed by the technical sophistication, if not the virtue, of the con artists who pulled off a remarkable internationally organized attack.
“It was pretty ingenious,” Pace University computer science professor Darren Hayes said Friday.
On the creative side of the heist, a small team of highly skilled hackers penetrated bank systems, erased withdrawal limits on prepaid debit cards and stole account numbers. On the crude end, criminals used handheld devices to change the information on the magnetic strips of old hotel key cards, used credit cards and depleted debit cards.
Seven people were arrested in the U.S., accused of operating the New York cell of what prosecutors said was a network that carried out thefts at ATMs in 27 countries from Canada to Russia. Law enforcement agencies from more than a dozen nations were involved in the investigation, which was being led by the Secret Service.
“There were obviously a lot of great minds behind this exploit, and then there were the pawns, the mules. They are entirely exploitable,” said Phyllis Scheck, vice president at the security firm McAfee who has testified to Congress about how banks and small businesses need to prepare for cyber thieves.
Scheck couldn’t help be impressed by the choreography.
“They executed while the iron was hot. They got in and got out,” she said.
In the end, the victims weren’t individuals. They were two banks, Rakbank in the United Arab Emirates and the Bank of Muscat in Oman, which had their card processors breached, prosecutors said.
More investigations continue and other arrests have been made in other countries, but New York prosecutors did not have details. More arrests in the U.S. were possible, they said.
Police in Duesseldorf, Germany, said a 56-year-old woman and her 34-year-old son were linked to the case earlier this year and are still in investigative detention after having been arrested in February. They have refused to speak to police.
In New York, the cell was led by Alberto Lajud Pena, 23, who was found dead in the Dominican Republic with $100,000 in cash on him, prosecutors said. A man arrested in his death told authorities it was a botched robbery, and two other suspects were on the lam.
According to court documents, Lajud Pena communicated via email with a Russian criminal organization that specializes in laundering money and wrote to his shadowy bosses in charge of the operation. He wired money and deposited cash into several accounts.
“I sent scanned deposit slips,” Lajud Pena writes in one.
“Deposit has cleared. Order paid. Good job,” the sender replies.
Prosecutors said Lajud Pena recruited men he knew from Yonkers, some of whom worked as bus drivers for a company that provided services to special-needs students.
All but one of the surviving suspects were in jail, and it wasn’t clear who was representing them. In Yonkers Friday, neighbors at the basement apartment where authorities said they seized $3,740 of the stolen money said police had visited two days in a row last month.
About $2 million is still missing, officials said.