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Hacker's extradition for cyber heist: sign US is gaining in cyber crime fight

US investigators may be gaining ground in the fight against international cyber crime. Recent extradition of an alleged hacker from Estonia is latest victory in prosecuting such cases.

By Staff writer / August 11, 2010

A worker walks in the foyer of a Royal Bank of Scotland office in the City of London. Sergei Tsurikov and alleged members of his hacker gang withdrew $9.4 million from 2,100 ATMs in at least 280 cities around the world.

Luke MacGregor/Reuters/File


The cyber attack on the Atlanta-based subsidiary of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) began Nov. 4, 2008, even as Americans went to polls to elect a new president. While Mr. Obama's supporters were savoring political victory, Sergei Tsurikov and alleged members of his hacker gang in Eastern Europe were nearing their own celebration: Having cracked the encryption protecting prepaid payroll cards of the bank's WorldPay, the cyber criminals were allegedly orchestrating a lightning-strike theft.

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After providing 44 fake payroll debit cards and stolen PIN numbers to a platoon of "cashers," Mr. Tsurikov and his partners watched on computer screens as the cashers withdrew $9.4 million from 2,100 ATMs in at least 280 cities around the world – all in less than four days, according to a federal indictment.

Until recently, cyber thieves behind sophisticated thefts like the one at RBS had little to fear. Often operating from distant nations and across jurisdictional boundaries, law enforcement authorities in the US and elsewhere found it difficult to catch the suspects, much less get them to court.

Now come small yet substantial signs that the good guys may be gaining a bit of ground in the cyber fight. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), US Secret Service, and others cheered last week as Tsurikov was extradited from Estonia to Atlanta, where he now sits in a federal cell awaiting trial. On Friday he pleaded "not guilty" to federal charges concerning his alleged role in the RBS WorldPay cyber heist.

After years of struggle, US law enforcement officials and private cyber security firms say they have made some strides despite a massive and growing cyber theft problem.

β€œIn just one day, an American credit-card processor was hacked in perhaps the most sophisticated and organized computer fraud attack ever conducted," United States Attorney Sally Quillian Yates said in a statement about the RBS WorldPay case. "With cooperation from law enforcement partners around the world, and most particularly in Estonia, we have now extradited to Atlanta one of the leaders of this ring."

That victory comes on the heels of another major FBI victory. In partnership with Spanish and Slovenian police, the FBI last month hailed the arrest in Spain of three suspected operators of the Mariposa botnet, a collection of infected computers used to steal passwords, credit-card data, and bank account information worldwide.

"We've had some recent successes, and those have been achieved as a direct result of our association with our foreign partners," says David Wallace, acting section chief of the cyber crime section of the FBI's cyber division in a phone interview. "The last several years have seen more arrests, convictions, and dismantling of these operations. Our success is growing. Obviously, the problem is growing as well."

One sign of success, he says, is the capture of the suspected creators of the software involved in the Mariposa botnet case. Authorities nailed the botnet's purported creator, a 23-year-old Slovenian known as "Iserdo." [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph mistakenly cited the RBS case as a significant example in which software creators were captured. The FBI official referred only to the Mariposa case.]

In most cases, the suspects go to trial overseas – in Spain and Slovenia in the Mariposa botnet case, for instance. That's fine with the FBI's Mr. Wallace.