'Happy hacker' arrest: Did police just nab a cyber crime 'botmaster'?
An Algerian arrested at an airport in Thailand this week has defrauded 217 banks worldwide of tens of millions of dollars, Thai officials charge. They also say the FBI has been hunting him for three years.
American and Thai authorities may well have jointly scooped up one of the world's top 20 bank-hacking criminal masterminds, someone who is part of a global cyber-conspiracy to commit bank fraud to the tune of $100 million. Or, the man arrested in Bangkok on Sunday may simply be a happy-go-lucky guy with a bunch of computer equipment and an odd sense of humor.Skip to next paragraph
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How else to explain the capture of the quirky Hamza Bendelladj, whom news reports call the "happy hacker" for his post-arrest sunbeam-bright smile, seeming almost pleased to be in custody?
Whether walking handcuffed with police through the Bangkok airport where he was captured or whether sitting later at a police press conference, the 24-year-old Algerian – characterized by Thai police as a cyber bank robber who defrauded hundreds of banks of millions of dollars through online fraud – kept right on grinning.
Mr. Bendelladj only smiled when Thai police alleged he had infiltrated the computer networks of 217 banks – and then stole tens of millions of dollars. The "tools of his trade," police officials claimed during the press conference, lay on a table in front of him: two laptop computers, a satellite phone, external hard drives, and other equipment.
Authorities also allege that Bendelladj's chief tool was a nasty piece of malicious software – a criminal banking trojan program called SpyEye. Used in conjunction with phony Web pages, SpyEye was deposited on the computers of unwary visitors to those websites from December 2009 to September 2011, according to a report in the Nation, a Bangkok news website. After credentials were harvested, Bendelladj could invade a bank account and drain it, authorities allege.
"With just one transaction, he could earn 10 to 20 million dollars," police Lt. Gen. Phanu Kerdlabphol told reporters, as Bendelladj sat, beaming, beside him. "He's been traveling the world flying first-class and living a life of luxury."
Bendelladj, who reportedly earned a computer science degree at a university in Algeria in 2008, has denied that he used the money for personal expenses and travel and said he was not connected to any cybercrime syndicate, the Nation reported.
He also denied Thai officials' claims that he was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. (Indeed, he is not.)
"I'm not in the top 10, maybe just 20th or 50th," Bendelladj said with a laugh. "I am not a terrorist."
Still, Bendelladj now sits in a Thai jail awaiting extradition to the United States. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, through its offices in Georgia, has been pursuing him for three years, Thai police said. The FBI tipped off Thai police about Bendelladj's visit, so that they could arrest him at Bangkok’s Suvarnnabhumi airport, where he was awaiting a connecting flight to Cairo after arriving from Malaysia, Immigration Police Deputy Chief Preecha Thimamontri said at the press conference.
The FBI has not released any information about Bendelladj's alleged criminal activities. "We are not in a position to comment because it's part of an ongoing investigation," an FBI spokesman told the Monitor. The case, she said, is being handled by the FBI's office in Georgia's Northern district.