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A New York man has been charged with aiding the alleged leader of the hacking gang accused of stealing more than 40 million credit and debit card numbers from stores owned by TJX Companies and other companies.

Federal prosecutors in Boston accused Stephen Watt, 25, of modifying a sniffer program for Albert Gonzalez, who was indicted earlier this year as the ring leader of a group that broke into networks used by TJ Maxx, BJ's Wholesale Club, OfficeMax, Barnes & Noble, Sports Authority, Forever 21, and DSW. As recently as January, Watt "edited the 'blabla' sniffer utilized by the conspirators" and was stored on a server in Latvia, federal charging papers allege.

Watt is charged with a single count of conspiracy and faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted.

Gonzalez, who has pleaded not guilty, had already been arrested in 2003 for access device fraud in 2003. During the more recent investigation, Gonzalez was working as a confidential informant for the Secret Service, but federal officials say they were unaware he was criminally involved in the case.

According to prosecutors, Gonzalez oversaw a criminal enterprise that carried out some of the biggest identity thefts in US history. Breaches into TJ Maxx and other stores owned by TJX are believed to have netted personal information belonging to more than 45 million people.

The group preyed off of stores that used insecure wireless networks to zap customer's personal information to credit card processors. The gang allegedly stored stolen information on encrypted servers in eastern Europe and the US. They converted the data to cash by creating counterfeit credit and debit cards with the information and using the cards to withdraw "tens of thousands of dollars at a time from ATMs," and and by selling some of the account details to others, prosecutors have alleged.

The charging of Watt comes about six weeks after Damon Patrick Toey of Miami pleaded guilty to his involvement in the criminal conspiracy and agreed to testify against the other defendants in the case. A few weeks later, a second co-defendant, Christopher Scott, 25, of Miami, also pleaded guilty. ®

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