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Romanian phisher confesses to scam targeting financial giants

Scammer faces five years in slammer

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A Romanian man has admitted he took part in a sophisticated phishing scam that targeted PayPal and at least nine other financial institutions by tricking their customers into giving up their account credentials.

Ovidiu-Ionut Nicola-Roman, 22, of Craiova, Romania, pleaded guilty in federal court in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on Tuesday to one count of conspiracy to commit fraud. He faces a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of $250,000, although prosecutors agreed to recommend a reduced sentence if he complies with the terms of his plea agreement.

In an indictment filed in January, Nicola-Roman and six other Romanians were accused of running a well-organized operation that involved a combination of social engineering and computer hacking. An email purporting to come from the Brattleboro Savings & Loan Ass'n, for instance, informed customers their online accounts were temporarily unavailable while administrators upgraded the system.

To give the claim credibility, the gang disabled the bank's website by unleashing a denial-of-service attack. The email, which contained good English usage and grammar, went on to say accounts would be automatically deleted unless customers accessed a secure online database and confirmed their account details.

Other financial institutions targeted by the attackers included PayPal, Capital One, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, Comerica Bank, LaSalle Bank, US Bank, Wells Fargo and People's Bank.

The gang stored the purloined social security numbers, bank account numbers and other financial information using a series of shared email accounts from Yahoo and Gmail. They then used the information to access bank accounts and lines of credit to withdraw funds without authorization. The scheme defrauded one institution of $150,000, according to authorities. They didn't detail damages to other victims.

Romania has emerged as a hotbed for online crime. Last week, Romanian police arrested some two-dozen people alleged to have raked in an estimated €400,000 ($634,000) by engaging in various identity theft, credit card and auction fraud scams. Targets of the scams reportedly included eBay, craiglist.com and Equine.com, or people using those services.

Vladuz, the notorious hacker who repeatedly accessed off-limits parts of eBay's network and then publicly bragged about it, also hailed from Romania.

Nicola-Roman was located in Bulgaria and apprehended on an Interpol warrant in June 2007. He was extradited to the US three months later. The remaining suspects remain at large. Sentencing for Nicola-Roman is scheduled for October 10. ®

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