NEW YORK — A bloodless bank heist that netted more than $45 million has left even cybercrime experts impressed by the technical sophistication, if not the virtue, of the con artists who pulled off a remarkable, internationally organized attack.
“It was pretty ingenious,” Pace University computer science professor Darren Hayes said Friday.
Seven people were arrested in the U.S., accused of operating the New York cell of what prosecutors said was a network that carried out thefts at ATMs in 27 countries from Canada to Russia. Law enforcement agencies from more than a dozen nations were involved in the investigation.
Here's how it worked:
First, the hackers broke into computer records at a few credit card processing companies. This has happened before but here's what was new: They didn't just take information. They actually raised the limit on prepaid debit cards kept in reserves at two large banks.
Crime ring members in 27 countries then ran used plastic cards, just about anything with a standard magnetic strip, through handheld magnetic stripe encoders, widely available online for less than $300. Those devices allow users to change information on magnetic stripes.
In this case, the stripes were rewritten with information from the hackers. That allowed the thieves to turn the cards into prepaid debit cards with unlimited amounts of money stored on them.
On two pre-arranged days — once in December and again in February — criminals with the debit cards and PIN numbers raced from one ATM to the next, often taking out the maximum the cash machine would allow in a single transaction: $800.
In December, they worked for about 2.5 hours, reaping $5 million in about 4,500 transactions. Two months later, they hit the ATMs for 10 hours straight, collecting $40 million in 36,000 transactions.
Players kept a cut but sent the bulk of the money back to the masterminds through wire transfers or in person, prosecutors said.
One New York suspect, Elvis Rodriguez, 24, planned to travel to Romania in January to pay about $300,000 to organizers of the operation, but American Airlines canceled the reservation because the airline was concerned it had been booked with a stolen credit card.
Authorities said they seized his iPhone and found a photo of him and another suspect posing with a stack of cash between them in a car.
In the end, the victims weren't individuals. They were two banks, Rakbank in the United Arab Emirates and the Bank of Muscat in Oman, which had their card processors breached, prosecutors said.
More investigations continue and other arrests have been made.