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TJX kingpin pleads guilty to Heartland hack

Forest Gump of cybercrime face 17 years plus

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TJX hacking mastermind Albert Gonzalez faces a minimum of 17 years behind bars after pleading guilty to further cybercrimes.

Gonzalez, 28, of Miami, admitted hacking into the systems of card processor Heartland Payment Systems, 7-Eleven, and supermarket chain Hannaford Brothers as part of a plea bargain agreement on Tuesday. The former federal informant led a gang that exploited wireless security problems in branch offices and other security flaws to steal tens of millions of credit and debit card records.

In a plea bargain agreement, Gonzalez admitted that he maintained a cloud-based hacking service for use in credit card fraud, as an extract from a DoJ statement explains.

Gonzalez leased or otherwise controlled several servers, or "hacking platforms", and gave access to these servers to other hackers, knowing that they would use them to store malicious software, or “malware,” and launch attacks against corporate victims. Malware used against several of the corporate victims was also found on a server controlled by Gonzalez. Gonzalez tested malware by running multiple anti-virus programs in an attempt to ascertain if the programs detected the malware.

The Forrest Gump of cybercrime admitted two counts of conspiracy to gain unauthorized access to the payment card networks of Heartland et al. The admission comes after an earlier guilty plea in the TJX case. The TJX case has been bundled together with breaches of the corporate networks of BJ’s Wholesale Club, OfficeMax, Boston Market, Barnes & Noble and Sports Authority.

Prosecutors unsurprisingly describe the cases as the biggest ID theft crimes ever prosecuted and one of the largest data breaches case ever investigated and prosecuted in the US. Sentencing is scheduled for March 18 and 19, with defense lawyers promising to ask for no less than 17 years behind bars while prosecutors agree to request no more than 25 years in jail for Gonzalez.

Lawyers for Gonzalez previously argued that their client suffered from Asperger's Syndrome. It's unclear whether the plea bargaining agreement means that this contention is no longer relevant to the case and whether it might yet surface in mitigation arguments during sentencing. ®

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