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Romanian national cops to $700,000 phishing trip

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A 22-year-old Romanian national has admitted he participated in a US-based phishing operation that raked in some $700,000 over a three-year period.

Sergiu Daniel Popa, who for the past seven years has lived in New York and Michigan, pleaded guilty in federal court in Minneapolis to two felonies related to the scheme. He faces a maximum of 10 years in federal prison and a fine of $500,000. Sentencing has not yet been scheduled.

According to Popa's plea agreement, the scheme snagged the identities of 7,000 individuals who suffered a net loss of about $700,000. When his house was searched earlier this year, authorities found a machine for imprinting graphics on blank plastic cards, foil ribbons for making holographic images that appear on finished cards, blank cards, and partially created fraudulent drivers' licenses.

Investigators also recovered "tens of thousands" of email addresses in his Yahoo email account that he kept for the purpose of sending phishing emails that tried to trick the recipient into divulging sensitive information, such as their bank account numbers.

Like many online criminals, Popa was infused with a strong sense of impunity and hubris, court documents suggest.

"Listen up," he wrote to one associate in a January 2005 email. "I am a accredited [sic] vendor in underworld. I have many scams, shop admins, and many full info credit cards. I can also pull up credit reports and cash out ATMs. I charge for my services but I am a great provider of everything."

Popa also possessed pre-built websites spoofing the online destinations of multiple financial institutions, such as PayPal, SunTrust Bank, and CitiBank, according to an affidavit filed in the case. He offered to sell phishing kits with step-by-step instructions for $1,500 and software and hardware capable of counterfeiting credit cards.

According to the affidavit, Popa was sentenced to 71 days in jail in Michigan in 2006 after being charged for using a hijacked eBay account to defraud someone into paying $1,448 for an item that didn't exist.

FBI agents began their investigation of Popa in early 2005. He was charged in a sealed criminal complaint in February. ®

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