WASHINGTON -- Investigators say they've uncovered a sophisticated “phishing” operation that fraudulently collected personal information from thousands of victims that was used to defraud American banks.
Authorities in several United States cities arrested 33 of 53 suspects named in the criminal indictment returned last week by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles, California. In addition to the US indictment, authorities in Egypt have charged 47 suspects linked to the same phishing scheme.
The aptly named "Operation Phish Phry" marks the first joint cyber investigation between Egyptian law enforcement authorities and United States officials, which include the FBI, the United States Attorney’s Office, and the Electronic Crimes Task Force in Los Angeles. Phish Phry, with 53 defendants charged in United States District Court, also marks the largest cyber crime investigation to date in the United States.
Operation Phish Phry commenced in 2007 when FBI agents, working with United States financial institutions, took steps to identify and disrupt sophisticated criminal enterprises targeting the financial infrastructure in the United States. Intelligence developed during the initiative prompted the FBI and Egyptian authorities to agree to pursue a joint investigation into multiple suspects based in Egypt after investigators in both countries earlier this year uncovered an international conspiracy allegedly operating an elaborate scheme to steal identities through a method commonly called “phishing.”
The group is accused of conspiring to target American-based financial institutions and victimize an unknown number of account holders by fraudulently using their personal financial information.
The multinational investigative effort resulted in 53 defendants being named in the federal indictment and 47 suspects being identified by Egyptian authorities. The domestic defendants were arrested in California, Nevada, and North Carolina. In California, defendants reside in the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, and San Diego.
The 51-count indictment accuses all of the defendants with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud. Various defendants are charged with bank fraud; aggravated identity theft; conspiracy to commit computer fraud, specifically unauthorized access to protected computers in connection with fraudulent bank transfers, and domestic and international money laundering.
According to the indictment, Egyptian-based hackers obtained bank account numbers and related personal identification information from an unknown number of bank customers through phishing -- a technique that involves sending e-mail messages that appear to be official correspondence from banks or credit card vendors. In illegal phishing schemes, bank customers are directed to fake web sites purporting to be linked to financial institutions, where the customers are asked to enter their account numbers, passwords and other personal identification information. Because the web sites appear to be legitimate -- complete with bank logos and legal disclaimers -- the customers do not realize that the web sites do not belong to legitimate financial institutions.
The indictment alleges that co-conspirators in Egypt collected victims' bank account information by using information obtained from their phishing activities. Armed with the bank account information, members of the conspiracy hacked into accounts at two banks. Once they accessed the accounts, the individuals operating in Egypt communicated via text messages, telephone calls and Internet chat groups with co-conspirators in the United States.