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September 29, 2010

37 Indicted for Using Internet to Steal Money From Bank Accounts

The New York City district attorney announced the indictment of 37 people involved in an international cyber-scheme to siphon nearly $900,000 out of American bank accounts. Coming on the heels of a similar take down in the United Kingdom, this incident adds to the growing concern about internet bank fraud.

United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara says these high-tech bank heists do not require a mask, a gun, a note, or a getaway car. Instead, these modern-day criminals use advanced software called Zeus to secure private bank information by spying on unsuspecting victims while they use their computers. From there they set up a series of money transfers.

"And that's where the defendants we charge here today come in," said Preet Bharara. "For you see it's not so easy to get into the victim bank accounts and send the money directly back to the Eastern European originators of the scheme. What they have instead used was an organization of what we can "cyber-mules." Those are the people that are responsible for getting the money that was pilfered out, allegedly, back to the originators in Eastern Europe."

New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance says, using fake documents, "mules" open up several different bank accounts.

"A foreign student living in the United States on temporary visas, would open a bank account in his or her own name receive a large cash transfer, drain the account, and hand the money over to a third party while keeping some for themselves," said Cyrus Vance.

A majority of these "mules" are Eastern European citizens visiting the United States on a J-1 education visa.  State Department officials say they are working with the American business community involved in this program and examining ways to provide enhanced safeguards for students.

But the crisis is expanding. On Wednesday, British officials arrested 20 people in conjunction with an internet bank theft of six million euro. The culprits, also of Eastern European descent, used the same Zeus program as those arrested in New York.

While U.S. Attorney Bharara says the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been working with intelligence agencies globally to solve this case, he refused to comment on whether the two incidents were related.

Ten of the 37 indicted were arrested on Thursday, another 10 were arrested earlier this year. Bahara says 17 are still at large.