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Romanian phisher gets 50 month prison term

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A Romanian man has been sentenced to serve more than four years in US prison for taking part in a sophisticated phishing scam that cost financial institutions at least $150,000.

Ovidiu-Ionut Nicola-Roman, 23, of Craiova, Romania, received 50 months in federal prison, followed by three years of supervised release. In July, he pleaded guilty to a single felony count of conspiracy to commit fraud. He's the first foreign defendant to be convicted in the US for phishing offenses, as federal prosecutors were quick to point out in a sentencing memorandum to the judge hearing the case.

"The Court is therefore presented with a unique opportunity, to demonstrate that criminals overseas cannot conduct their phishing schemes with impunity, by imposing a Guidelines sentence on the defendant," they wrote.

An indictment filed in January 2008 accused Nicola-Roman and six other Romanians of running a well-organized operation that used a combination of social engineering and computer hacking to dupe recipients into divulging payment card numbers and other sensitive information. The suspects then withdrew money from the customers' bank accounts or made purchases using their debit cards, prosecutors allege.

In one episode, the defendants sent an email purporting to come from the Brattleboro Savings & Loan Ass'n that informed customers their online accounts were temporarily unavailable while administrators upgraded the bank's website. To give the claim credibility, the gang made the site inaccessible by unleashing a denial-of-service attack on it.

The email was notable because it contained good English usage and grammar, unlike many phishing come-ons. It 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 stolen social security numbers, bank account numbers, and other financial information using shared email accounts from Yahoo and Gmail. They then used the purloined information to access bank accounts and lines of credit to withdraw funds without authorization.

Nicola-Roman was located in Bulgaria and apprehended on an Interpol warrant in June 2007. He was extradited to the US the following November. The remaining suspects have yet to be apprehended. ®

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