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Alleged Romanian phishers (finally) hauled into US courts

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Two Romanian men accused of internet scams that defrauded customers of PayPal, Citibank and other financial institutions have been extradited to the United States to face charges.

Petru Bogdan Belbita, 25, of Craiova, Romania, was arrested in Montreal, Canada in January and formally extradited to the US late last week, prosecutors with the US Attorney in New Haven, Connecticut, said Tuesday. A separate defendant, Cornel Ionut Tonita, 28, of Galati, Romania, was arrested in Croatia in July and brought to the US earlier this month.

The two men and five other Romanians were charged in January 2007 with taking part in a sophisticated phishing scam that cost financial institutions at least $150,000. One defendant in that case, Ovidiu-Ionut Nicola-Roman, has already pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud and sentenced to 50 months behind bars.

According to court documents, the men ran 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.

Both men have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

In one attack, they sent an email purporting to come from the Brattleboro Savings & Loan Ass'n that claimed customers' 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.

Belbita, who sometimes went under the alias Robert Wilson, is also facing charges filed in Los Angeles federal court in a separate phishing case. According to an indictment filed in May 2008, he was caught possessing software tools for carrying out phishing attacks against Bank of America customers. In March 2007, he allegedly participated in a phishing attack that yielded some 206 responses from customers of an unnamed financial service.

The extraditions of Belbita and Tonita demonstrate the up-hill battle prosecutors face in bringing many cybercrooks to justice. Their remote locations, often in countries without strong treaties with the United States, means it can take months or years just to take custody of a defendant. And before that can happen, authorities first must build strong cases against the suspects.

Assistance in the case came from the FBI, Interpol, the Romanian National Police, the Croatian police, and Canadian police, among others.

If convicted on all the charges brought in New Haven, the men face a maximum of 37 years in prison and fines of 1.5 million. ®

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