by ALICIA A. CALDWELL and PETE YOST
November 28, 2010
WASHINGTON -- Sitting at a computer somewhere overseas in January 2009, computer hackers went phishing.
Within minutes of casting their electronic bait they caught what they were looking for: A small Michigan company where an employee unwittingly clicked on an official-looking e-mail that secretly gave cyberthieves the keys to the firm's bank account.
Before company executives knew what was happening, Experi-Metal, a Sterling Heights manufacturing company, was broke. Its $560,000 bank balance had been electronically scattered into bank accounts in Russia, Estonia, Scotland, Finland and around the U.S.
In August, the Catholic Diocese in Des Moines, Iowa, lost about $680,000 over two days. Officials there aren't sure how hackers got into their accounts, but "they took all they could" before the bank noticed what was going on, according to Jason Kurth, diocese vice chancellor.
The diocese and the Sterling Heights company were among dozens of individuals, businesses and municipalities around the country victimized by one of the largest cybertheft rings the FBI has uncovered.
In September, the bureau and its counterparts in Ukraine, Netherlands and Britain took down the ring they first got wind of in May 2009 when a financial services firm tipped the bureau's Omaha, Neb., office to suspicious transactions. Since then, the FBI's Operation Trident Breach has uncovered losses of $14 million and counting.
Overall, in the last two years, the FBI has opened 390 cases against schemes that prey on businesses that process payments electronically through the Automated Clearinghouse, which handles 3,000 transactions every five seconds. In these cases, bureau agents have uncovered attempted thefts totaling $220 million and actual losses of $70 million.
But the court records of Operation Trident Breach reveal a surprise: For all the high-tech tools and tactics employed in these computer crimes, platoons of low-level human foot soldiers, known as money mules, are the indispensable cogs in the cybercriminals' money machine.
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