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Accused credit card hacker lived large in Miami

Industry analysts marveled at the scope of the operation — which Gonzalez allegedly dubbed “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.” One compared it to a hackers’ version of the 1980s gangster movie “Scarface.”

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It’s unclear what transpired between the time Gonzalez got that job and his first federal arrest. In 2003, Gonzalez was arrested for hacking but not charged because authorities said he became an informant, helping the Secret Service hunt other hackers.

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Palomino said Gonzalez should have gotten therapy then for what he says was a computer “addiction” — but that authorities used him like a machine to ferret out hackers.

Yet over the next five years, authorities said, Gonzalez continued to hack into the computer systems of Fortune 500 companies even while providing assistance to the government. A judge allowed him to move from New Jersey back to Florida in 2004, and court documents alleged that Gonzalez hacked the computer network of the national restaurant chain Dave & Buster’s.

He lived lavishly from the proceeds, court records show. Gonzalez threw a $75,000 birthday party for himself, complained that he had to count $340,000 in 20-dollar bills by hand because his money counter broke and considered investing in a nightclub.

In 2005, Gonzalez bought a one-bedroom condo for $118,000 near his parents, in a squat, three-story building populated with retirees and recent immigrants. Whether Gonzalez actually lived there is a mystery — no one in the building remembers seeing him.

Around that time, federal agents said, Gonzalez devised a sophisticated attack to penetrate computer networks, steal credit and debit card data, and send that information to computer servers in California, Illinois, Latvia, the Netherlands and Ukraine.

The Justice Department said Gonzalez and others used that attack to mine companies’ computers for approximately 40 million credit card numbers. At the time, that was believed to be the biggest such theft ever, and punctured the electronic defenses of such retailers as T.J. Maxx, Barnes & Noble, Sports Authority and OfficeMax.

Prosecutors allege Gonzalez was the ringleader of the hackers in that case.

One of their techniques apparently involved “wardriving,” or cruising through different areas with a laptop computer and looking for retailers’ accessible wireless Internet signals. Once they located a vulnerable network, the hackers installed “sniffer programs” that captured credit and debit card numbers as they moved through a retailer’s processing computers — then tried to sell the data.

In the latest indictment, authorities say Gonzalez and two Russian conspirators used a different technique to hack into corporate networks and secretly place “malware,” or malicious software, that would allow them backdoor access to the networks to steal data later.

James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, points out that if Gonzalez’s co-defendants are in or near Russia, where capturing or extraditing them is difficult, he is the only one of them likely to face trial.

“It’s relatively common in these crimes for the masterminds to live overseas and have a partner in the United States,” said Lewis. “At the end of the day, Gonzalez was the bagman.”

These days, Gonzalez is in a Brooklyn jail. He has access to a computer only when his lawyer visits, to review evidence for his trial.

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AP news researcher Julie Reed contributed to this report.