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Autistic trucking scam hacker jailed for 55 months

Quality of mercy

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A convicted hacker with Asperger’s Syndrome has been given a slightly reduced sentence of 55 months imprisonment over his involvement in a multi-million dollar trucking scam.

The judges' scant degree of leniency in dealing with an Asperger's sufferer will be closely watched by supporters of Pentagon hacker, Gary McKinnon.

Viachelav Berkovich, 34, received a sentence two years less than his co-defendant Nicholas Lakes, 36, who was jailed to 70 months last month, Wired reports. Berkovich's sentence was 23 months less than the minimum for his offence stipulated by federal sentencing guidelines after a judge took his disability into consideration as a mitigating factor.

Berkovich and Lakes pleaded guilty back in February to running an elaborate fraud over three years. The duo hacked into the Department of Transportation Safersys.org website in order to pose as trucking agents and search "load boards" for prospective marks. The hackers changed the contact details for a legitimate trucking firm to refer to addresses and phone numbers under their control.

They set about negotiating a deal to transport cargo before outsourcing this work to a third-party haulage firm so that the goods would actually be delivered. The hackers collected the money from the transportation clients before the haulage firm who actually did the work tried to get paid, discovering in the process that the firm that supposedly hired them knew nothing about the contract.

The hackers carried off the elaborate man-in-the-middle attack for months, as explained in an affidavit here (PDF). Lakes masterminded the scheme and led the vulnerable Berkovich into a life of crime, according to Berkovich's lawyers.

"We’re not excusing his behavior," defence lawyer Kiana Sloan-Hillier told Wired. "He's taken responsibility, and he knows that he shouldn't have gotten involved with this. But some people are more vulnerable than others."

Berkovich immigrated illegally into the US in 1999 and was close to becoming homeless when Lakes befriended him and brought him into his computer fraud racket. As well as sentencing Berkovich to a lengthy spell behind bars a judge ordered him to pay $2.7m compensation to 300 victims. Prosecutors has already recovered $1.4m in ill-gotten gains from Lakes.

The sentence against Berkovich suggests US court are prepared to take suffering from Asperger's Syndrome into account as a mitigating factor in sentencing but not as a reason to impose a suspended sentence or radically reduced sentence where a lengthy spell behind bars might normally be expected.

The handling of the Berkovich case is therefore bad news for fellow Asperger’s sufferer, Gary McKinnon, who recently lost his judicial review against extradition to the US on hacking offences. ®

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