Card hacker Albert Gonzalez gets 20 years, but cyber crime rising

Albert Gonzalez cost companies and insurers almost $200 million, federal prosecutors say, earning him the longest sentence ever leveled for cyber crime.

Sipa Press/Newscom/File
Albert Gonzalez, the mastermind behind one of the largest cyber thefts in US history.

The 20-year sentence for Albert Gonzalez, the mastermind behind one of the largest cyber thefts in US history, illustrates a disturbing trend: a 22 percent increase in cyber crime complaints over the last year.

Mr. Gonzalez was sentenced in Boston on Thursday for breaking into the computer systems of major retailers in Massachusetts. A separate sentencing Friday will address similar hacking cases in New Jersey and New York involving companies such as 7-Eleven Inc., New England grocery store chain Hannaford, and payment card processor Heartland Payment Systems.

Gonzalez pleaded guilty to all charges. His escapades cost companies, banks, and insurers almost $200 million, federal prosecutors say. His sentence is the harshest ever leveled for computer crime in an American court, said Mark Rasch, former head of the computer crimes unit at the US Department of Justice.

Authorities say Gonzalez's activities suggest a growing sophistication among homegrown hackers who use software to harvest credit-card data and other personal information through vulnerable Internet signals and hacked ATMs. Data are often sold to overseas operators or used to benefit the hackers themselves.

According to a report published this month by the Internet Crime Complaint Center, a joint operation between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, online crime complaints reached 336,655 in 2009, up 22.3 percent from the previous year. Total loss linked to online fraud was $559.7 million, a 111 percent rise.

The report listed nondelivery or nonpayment of goods as the top cyber crime reported to law enforcement in 2009, at 19.9 percent. Rounding out the top five were identity theft (14.1 percent), credit-card fraud (10.4 percent), auction fraud (10.3 percent) and computer fraud (7.9 percent).

Gonzalez fits the profile of most cyber criminals: He is male and lived in Florida, the state with the second-highest number of known perpetrators. California is first.

Hackers typically do not operate alone. In the Gonzalez case, two foreign codefendants helped him retrieve and transfer the data overseas.

However, a Chicago case involving cleaning service workers shows how cyber crime is not just limited to computer geeks – or even men. On Thursday, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart announced the arrest of seven people – all women – who stole data to purchase more than $300,000 in jewelry, electronics, and other goods.

The data were stolen from as many as 250 patient files from the offices of the Northwestern Medical Faculty Foundation by workers of a nighttime cleaning service. Mr. Dart said the data were used to open new credit accounts at major retailers or to add names to existing accounts. Warrants were issued for two suspects who remain at large.

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