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Guns, drugs, stolen identities - portrait of a phisher

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A California man has admitted he was part of an international phishing ring and stole tens of thousands of identities so he could support his methamphetamine habit.

Tien Truong Nguyen, 30, of Sacramento, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to five felonies, including conspiracy, access-device fraud and possession, aggravated identity theft, and being a felon in possession of a firearm. His confession came the same day his case was scheduled to go to trial in federal court in Sacramento.

Over a 15-month period beginning in October 2005, Nguyen and two cohorts used identities stolen from users of PayPal and other financial services to fraudulently obtain merchandise worth about $200,000 from Wal-Mart stores located in Northern California, according to court documents. The man, who sometimes went by the online moniker "cashout5050," told one detective investigating the crime his meth habit "gave him the drive to do identity theft."

When he was arrested at his home, his computer contained tens of thousands of stolen identities, templates for constructing phishing sites, and chat logs in which he discussed ways to convert stolen identities into store merchandise. He also had more than 40 fraudulently obtained prepaid gift cards, more than 40 counterfeit credit cards, and a counterfeit California driver's license with his picture on it.

Investigators also found a Remington 870 Magnum Express shotgun that stood up vertically behind Nguyen's computer stand, some near-by ammunition, and a feed from a complex surveillance system.

The scheme began to unravel when a Wal-Mart fraud investigator got an anonymous tip that two of Nguyen's alleged co-conspirators, Stefani Ruland and Ryan Price, had a garage full of items taken from the one of the retailer's outlets. The pair later confessed they obtained the goods using stolen personal identifying information they got from Nguyen.

Ruland and Price were able to obtain fraudulent credit cards by using "instant credit kiosks" located inside Wal-Mart stories, according to court documents. They would input names and other details from the stolen identities into the machines and often receive a temporary document with credit limits as high as $2,000. The kiosks were provided by GE Capital.

Ruland is serving "a long prison sentence" as a result of the investigation, according to court documents. The documents didn't specify the status of Price.

Nguyen told authorities he worked with other phishers located in Romania. Phishing templates found on his computer were designed to make it easy to set up websites that spoofed online services offered by eBay, Fairwinds Credit Union of Florida, Heritage Bank of Olympia, Washington, and the Honolulu City and County Employees Credit Union in Hawaii, among others.

Nguyen was previously convicted of three felonies, including writing fraudulent checks. He has been detained since he was arrested in January 2007.

Nguyen faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for each credit card offense, 10 years for the firearms possession, and seven years for the other charges. He may also be required to pay fines and restitution. Sentencing is scheduled for November 19. ®

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