Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Wired News: I Was a Cybercrook for the FBI

An ID badge that Taylor wore when he was arrested indicated that he worked for Microsoft. But that was no more accurate than the two-dozen other employee badges he possessed for E-Trade and AT&T Broadband, or the 15 driver's licenses from various states that featured his congenial face and a dozen aliases. Nor did Thomas's California driver's license help authorities identify him. Although it had his picture, the name and address on the ID belonged to a producer for the A&E channel.

With so many fake IDs in play it was unclear to police exactly who they had in custody. Then as they read Thomas his rights, he told them: "Get me some federal agents and I'll give you a case involving the Russians and millions of dollars."

Thus was the beginning of Thomas' turn to the other side. For 18 months beginning in April 2003, Thomas worked as a "paid asset" for the FBI running a website for identity and credit card thieves from a government-supplied apartment in the tony Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle.

From bedrise to bedrest, seven days a week, he rode the boards and forums of his and other carding sites using the online nickname El Mariachi. He recorded private messages and IRC chats for the FBI as "carders" schemed to, among other things, sell stolen credit and debit card numbers, defraud the George Bush and John Kerry campaign sites, drain hundreds of thousands of dollars from bank and investment accounts, sell access to Paris Hilton's T-Mobile account and run phishing scams against U.S. Bank and the FDIC. He did it all while battling denial-of-service attacks against his site and dodging attempts by his old partner Taylor and other carders to track his whereabouts and out him as a fed.

Just as his enemies were closing in on him in September 2004, the FBI pulled the plug on his work and cut him loose. But not before Thomas had given authorities a valuable look at the internet's underworld, though the strain of leading a double life nearly broke him.

Now Thomas is telling the story of his work during this period. It's a tale that provides a rare glimpse of the thriving international computer underground of high and low-tech thieves and swindlers whose crimes cost millions each year. It also illuminates the rarely seen world of federal law enforcement's war against these organized criminals, and the moral and ethical trade offs sworn agents make in pursuing their mission -- providing crooks with an electronic marketplace where they can congregate and conduct their ignominious business anonymously. Even allowing some crimes to go unpunished.
I once found the social security number, tax returns, and credit applications belonging to a Houston millionaire. He would not realize they were lost until and unless I used them in some kind of fraud scheme, if then. After being tempted for months, unemployed and with mounting credit card debt, I decided to pass on the opportunity to turn to a life of crime.

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