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Feds net 100 phishers in biggest cybercrime case ever

Operation Phish Phry

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US and Egyptian authorities have charged 100 people with conducting a phishing operation that siphoned at least $1.5m from thousands of accounts belonging to Bank of America and Well Fargo customers.

Fifty-three defendants from California, Nevada and North Carolina were named in a federal indictment unsealed Wednesday. Prosecutors said it was the largest number of defendants ever charged in a cybercrime case. Authorities in Egypt charged an additional 47 people.

Operation Phish Phry, as the case was dubbed, marks the first joint cyber investigation between law enforcement agencies in those two countries. The case was filed in federal court in Los Angeles.

According to the indictment, the Egypt-based defendants phished individuals' personal information and then used it to access victims' bank accounts. The phishers then worked with their counterparts in the US so money could be transferred into fraudulent accounts created specifically to receive the stolen funds.

The ring leaders were named as Kenneth Joseph Lucas, Nichole Michelle Merzi and Jonathan Preston Clark, all of California. They directed dozens of "runners" to set up the accounts that would receive the stolen loot. A portion of the funds were wired to the individuals in Egypt who originated the scam. Other defendants were located in Nevada and North Carolina.

Each defendant named in the 51-count indictment is charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud. If convicted, each faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison. A handful of defendants were charged with additional felonies, including bank fraud, aggravated identity theft, conspiracy to commit computer fraud and domestic and international money laundering.

The operation is an object lesson in the scale and coordination found in today's professional phishing operations. The charges are the result of an investigation that began in 2007, when FBI agents identified criminal enterprises targeting US financial institutions.

"The sophistication with which Phish Phry defendants operated represents an evolving and troubling paradigm in the way identity theft is now committed," Keith Bolcar, acting assistant director in charge of the FBI in Los Angeles, said in a statement. ®

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