By Robert Lemos, The New York Times
In an investigation that led from online forums to a passport-forging facility in Bulgaria, law enforcement officials arrested in the last 48 hours suspects from eight states and six foreign countries on charges of identity theft, computer fraud, credit card fraud and conspiracy.
Dubbing the enforcement action Operation Firewall, the Secret Service said individuals working together stole more than 1.7 million credit card numbers and other financial information costing more than $4.3 million.
Federal law enforcement agents--cooperating with officials from the United Kingdom, Canada, Bulgaria, Belarus, Poland, Sweden, Ukraine and the Netherlands -- have arrested 28 suspects since Tuesday night and stressed that the investigation continues.
"Information is the world's new currency," W. Ralph Basham, director of the Secret Service, said in a statement. "These suspects targeted personal and financial information of ordinary citizens as well as the confidential and proprietary information of companies engaged in e-commerce."
The worldwide investigation is the third in the last three months to take on organized cybercrime. In August, the U.S. Department of Justice made arrests in five states on charges of criminal copyright infringement in an action dubbed Operation Digital Gridlock, while the FBI and U.S. Postal inspectors announced that more than 103 arrests were made in an extensive computer crimes investigation known as Operation Web Snare.
A grand jury indictment delivered on Thursday in New Jersey accused 19 members of an online site, Shadowcrew.com, of trading tutorials and information about identity theft and forgery and exchanging sensitive personal and financial information. The charges against individual suspects range from conspiring to commit identity fraud, exchanging 18 million e-mail accounts along with personal identifying information, trafficking in credit card numbers, and exchanging forged and stolen identification documents.
The group traded stolen credit card numbers and bank account information as well as counterfeit passports, drivers' licenses, Social Security cards, credit cards, debit cards, birth certificates, college student ID cards, and health insurance cards, according to the indictment.
The other nine suspects were arrested on charges related to the identity fraud ring.
The investigation started in July 2003 when the Secret Service, now part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, began investigating an unspecified financial crime. By going undercover on the Shadowcrew.com Web site, investigators were able to find out which of the site's 4,000 members were actively taking part in criminal conduct, according to a Secret Service statement. The investigation led to two other Web sites--Cardplanet and Darkprofits--that the Secret Service alleges are the online portals to other financial-crimes organizations.
The international breadth of the investigation is par for the course, said Bruce Townsend, deputy assistant director for the Secret Service.
"I have been in the Secret Service for 21 years, and two things have changed our world: the information economy and globalization," he said.
The Secret Service has replaced the Shadowcrew Web site with a new site that outlines the charges. Nothing has connected the fraud ring to any known terrorist group, Townsend said.
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Other agencies that took part in the investigation included the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of State, the U.K. National Hi-Tech Crimes Unit, the Vancouver, B.C., Police Department's Financial Crimes Section, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Europol, as well as police agencies in Belarus, Poland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Ukraine.