A serial hacker has been charged with carrying out the largest theft of credit card identities ever recorded in the US, in a sophisticated scam in which he and accomplices allegedly stole at least 130m accounts from big retail companies.
Albert Gonzalez, 28, of Miami, who once worked with the US secret service, is accused of working with two unidentified Russian conspirators to hack into the databases of retail chains, selling the information around the world. According to a 14-page indictment, the hackers stole credit card numbers from Heartland, a New Jersey-based company that processes payments, from the store 7-Eleven, and the supermarket chain Hannaford.
The three also targeted two other, unnamed corporations, according to the US attorney's office in New Jersey.
Heartland Payment Systems and Hannaford Brothers had separately acknowledged the breaches, but the scope of the fraud had not been known.
Gonzalez — known online as "soupnazi" — was formerly employed by the US secret service to track down hackers, but was found to have been passing information on investigations to criminals.
He is already being held in jail in New York, accused with others of stealing the credit identities of about 40 million people worldwide.
Gonzalez and his Russian helpers are said to have set up a sophisticated system for hacking into and downloading credit card numbers. They began by targeting Fortune 500 companies, scouring corporate websites for security weaknesses.
The suspects are alleged to have studied the checkout machines deployed by one of their victims, using that information to break into the company's computer systems and upload information on to servers set up in three locations in the US, as well as Latvia, Ukraine and the Netherlands.
They also used malware — malicious software that attacks computer systems and systematically steals data, installing "sniffer" programmes that look for financial information.
Federal investigators and policy makers have become increasingly focused on identity theft as a criminal growth area. President Barack Obama recently created the post of "cyber tsar" to combat threats to government and private computer networks.
Gonzalez faces 20 years in prison if convicted of the latest charges.
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