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An Ohio woman whose credit card fraud schemes began to unravel when she unwittingly spammed an off-duty FBI computer crime agent pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge Tuesday, and potentially faces years in prison.

Helen Carr, 55, admitted in a federal court in Virginia to conspiring with colleagues in the spam community to send mass e-mails to AOL subscribers purporting to be from the company's security department. According to court records, the messages claimed that AOL's last attempt to bill the recipient's credit card had failed, and included a link to an "AOL Billing Center" webpage, where an online form demanded the user's name, address, credit card number, expiration date, three-digit CCV number and credit card limit.

The so-called "phishing" scams have developed as a popular technique for fraudsters to swindle people out of everything from PayPal accounts to ATM codes. In recent months the already-generous flow of fraudulent e-mails purporting to be from PayPal, eBay and Citibank were joined by a fresh influx of junk mail bearing the false imprimaturs of stalwart British institutions like Halifax, NatWest, Barclays and Lloyd's of London. Last month a particularly bold variant on the scheme directed netizens to a fake FBI anti-fraud website that prompted them for their debit or credit card numbers and PINs.

Carr's undoing began when an FBI agent in the Norfolk, Virginia field office received one of her e-mails in February, 2001, and launched an investigation. An electronic trail of stolen AOL accounts and free Web pages led agents to raid the homes of a professional spammer and a credit card thief, both of whom snitched on Carr, naming her as the ringleader of the operation, according to an FBI affidavit in the case. A search of Carr's home turned up two computers packed with files relating to the scam.

The plea is silent on how many credit card numbers Carr obtained in the scam -- a question that's key to her future. Under binding federal guidelines, Carr's sentence will be determined by the amount of fraudulent charges racked up on the stolen credit card numbers -- with a maximum of five years. But the guidelines also dictate that each credit card be valued at a minimum of $500.00, a formula that helped boost Carr co-conspirator George R. Patterson's sentence to 37 months in prison, according to Patterson's attorney. Carr is set for sentencing on January 20th.

"Internet 'phishing' for credit card numbers and personal information is thievery," said U.S Attorney Paul McNulty in a statement. "This defendant was hooked by her own scheme."

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