RAMNICU VALCEA, Romania -- It's easy to tell which kids in this town
have helped to make it a global center for criminal hacking and Internet
They're the pupils who come to school wearing the best
clothes and gold jewelry in a region of Romania where chickens are
raised in yards and roads are full of potholes.
"In our high
school, almost everyone in the 11th and 12th grade did it," said Alina,
22, who worked for a man who bilked Americans and others out of their
money online by offering for sale products that did not exist.
who asked for anonymity out of fear that she would be exposed for
criminal actions, said she didn't feel bad about it at the time.
"You rarely feel you're doing any harm when your victim is somewhere across the ocean," she said.
Cybercrime is in the news lately after Target admitted that a massive
data hack may have compromised the personal information of as many as
110 million customers.
And Reuters reported Sunday that upscale
retailer Neiman Marcus has also been the victim of a security breach of
credit card customer information. Security firms said the thefts may
have originated in Eastern Europe, where Romania has been a focal point
of international cyber-fraud investigators for years now.
and U.S. Secret Service have been involved in numerous arrests of
Romanians who target Americans. In response to the rise, in October the
Council of Europe - a body that oversees cooperation between European
countries - picked the Romanian capital of Bucharest for its latest
cybercrime program office.
FBI instructors have trained nearly 600 Romanian investigators in combating cybercrime, according to the U.S. Embassy.
announcing the creation of the new office, Romanian President Traian
Basescu said he hoped repentant scammers might help police track down
"Maybe we'll manage to bring our performing hackers to the good side of the barricade," he said.
investigators say there were about 1,000 cases of cybercrime in 2012.
Police in Ramnicu Valcea, a town of 120,000 people, say every year they
arrest around 100 people on cybercrime charges.
Worldwide, individuals and businesses lose around $397 billion a year due to hacking, according to Europol.
Spiridon, the head of the Romanian National Police's Cybercrime Unit,
say the cases take years to litigate because of the difficulty in
catching sophisticated hackers. Basescu says his country cannot hope to
end the enterprise because it doesn't have the resources to do it.
in Romania report that 80% of the cyber attacks originating from
Romania target American citizens and companies. The U.S. Embassy in
Bucharest has estimated that Romanian cybercriminals steal $1 billion
every year by hacking American computers.
The scams tend to
involve Americans who share financial and personal information with
people they think are legitimate sellers of products. Common schemes
include the selling of fake cars and computers or "skimming" - getting
someone to reveal financial and password information that is used to
fabricate an ATM card and drain a victim's bank account or rack up
charges on a credit card.
"Credit card and internet fraud remain
among the most common crimes affecting foreigners in Romania," the U.S.
Embassy website warns travelers to Romania.
Among the latest:
In May, the U.S. Justice Department extradited Romanian nationals
Cristea Mircea, 30, Ion Pieptea, 36, and Nicolae Simion, 37, on charges
of running a multimillion dollar cyber fraud scheme targeting customers
of U.S.-based online marketplaces.
The trio ran ads on eBay,
Cars.com and AutoTrader.com for non-existent cars, boats and motorcycles
priced between $10,000 and $45,000 and sent potential buyers fraudulent
certificates of title and links to fake websites for dealerships that
they claimed held the vehicles. Once a purchase was agreed upon, the
victims were sent fake invoices from Amazon Payments, PayPal, or other
online payment services.The men allegedly stole more than $2 million.
In November 2012, prosecutors from the Romanian Directorate for
Investigating Organized Crime and Terrorism arrested 16 people
individuals suspected of being members of the credit card fraud ring
that netted $25 million. Those arrested were accused of hacking into the
computer systems of gas stations and grocery stores and installing
computer applications that intercept credit card transaction data.
In October, the directorate arrested members of a cybercrime gang
accused of stealing information from 50,000 credit cards across 24
Romania's anti-hacking police force has risen from a
handful of officers to 280 investigators in seven years. But the police
might as well be fighting the tide, said Raoul Chiesa, a former Italian
hacker who now is an information technology security consultant.
"In Romania, you have brilliant minds and excellent universities
while, on the other hand, it's not easy to find a good job," he said.
saw the same issue in Bulgaria, for example, in China, in India. When
you are a young guy, and some bad guy offers you money in order to do
something that you know how to do and are able to do that brings a very
low risk, it's not always that easy to say no."
Hacking has triggered a boomlet in Ramnicu Valcea, where the economy has otherwise been depressed for years.
drive fancy news cars on pothole-filled roads. They frequent a mall
packed with expensive stores as well as the nightclubs and beauty
centers that have sprouted up amid decaying communist-era factories and
tall grey apartment blocks.
Alina said she was playing a video
game in an Internet café when a man approached her and asked if she
might translate an e-mail into English for him. The e-mail was part of a
scam involving the fake sale of digital equipment.
The more she
participated in the scams, the harder it was to stop. Once she earned
$4,100 for a single job, she said, a fortune in a country where the
annual per capita income is $13,000 a year.
Her family used the
money for home improvements and school expenses after Alina confessed
her hacking to her mother and quit the business, she said.
"I realized that I was much happier as a normal kid," she said.