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An Ohio woman who used forged e-mails from "AOL security" to swindle America Online subscribers out of their credit card numbers was sentenced to 46 months in prison Tuesday, after a federal judge in Virginia rejected her plea for a reduced sentence.

Helen Carr, 55, pleaded guilty last October to one count of conspiracy for her role in a scheme that sent 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" web page, where an online form demanded the user's name, address, credit card number, expiration date, three-digit CCV number and credit card limit.

The scheme began to unravel in February, 2001, when Carr unwittingly spammed an off-duty FBI agent with the Norfolk, Virginia field office. The agent, a computer crime specialist, was apparently not taken in by the scam mail, which boasted a return address of "precious44257166@aol.com" and was sent to 19 other AOL users at the same time. The "Billing Center" web page was served by Geocities. "[A] legitimate AOL billing center would not be found at this location," agent Joseph Yuhasz wrote in an affidavit in the case.

Yuhasz sent a copy of the web page to what was then the Bureau's National Infrastructure Protection Center, which determined that the site was designed to e-mail its ill-gotten bounty to a particular Yahoo account.

From there, a cooperative Yahoo official and some helpful ISPs led the g-man to homes in Pennsylvania and Michigan. Subsequent raids on the homes yielded quick confessions from a professional spammer and a credit card thief named George Patterson, both of whom snitched on Carr, naming her as the ringleader of the operation, according to the FBI affidavit. A search of Carr's Ohio home turned up two computers packed with files relating to the scam.

Carr's 46 month sentence falls in the middle of the 36 to 57 month range dictated by the federal sentencing guidelines. Under the federal rules, credit card swindlers are sentenced according to the amount of fraudulent charges racked up on the stolen card numbers, with each card valued at a minimum of $500.00. Federal judge Jerome Friedman rejected a request by Carr's defense attorney for a "downward departure" below the 36 month minimum.

"This sentence may very well be the most substantial punishments ever meted out for this type of crime, and it is commensurate with the seriousness of the offense," said U.S Attorney Paul McNulty in a statement. Carr's attorney, Melinda Glaubke, did not return a phone call on the case.

Patterson was sentenced to 37 months last July. The Carr and Patterson case appears to be the first successful federal prosecution of a "phishing" scam -- an online annoyance that's increasingly snaring unwary netizens and cluttering inboxes around the world with e-mails claiming to be from PayPal, AOL, eBay, Citibank, Barclays, and other businesses. "There have been other prosecutions of people stealing credit card numbers over the Web, but not these phishing schemes," says Mark Rasch, an attorney and former head of the Justice Department's computer crime unit.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Virginia said Carr remains free on bail, and is scheduled to surrender to the federal Bureau of Prisons at a later date.

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