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Zeus Trojan bust reveals sophisticated 'money mules' operation in U.S.

Crooks used fake passports, false identities to set up bank accounts for moving stolen money

September 30, 2010 08:50 PM ET

Computerworld - Court documents released in connection with indictments announced on Thursday in a massive international cybercrime operation that resulted in millions of dollars being plundered from domestic bank accounts provide a fascinating -- if scary -- glimpse into how the crooks operated within the U.S.

The U.S Attorney's Office in Manhattan announced on Thursday that it had charged 37 individuals for their role in a scheme that involved the use of a sophisticated banking Trojan program and numerous "money mules" to steal from dozens of U.S. business accounts.

The charges in the U.S. followed similar arrests in the U.K., where authorities on Tuesday charged 11 Eastern European citizens in connection with the same scam. The operation in the U.S. was code-named ACHing Mules, in apparent reference to the fact that unauthorized automated clearinghouse (ACH) transactions were typically used to siphon money out of business accounts.

All of the individuals charged in the U.S. so far are from Russia and East European countries and were either money mules who helped transfer stolen money out of the U.S., or individuals who managed or recruited them.

Most of those charged on Thursday entered the country on J-1 non-immigrant visas, which are frequently used by students in cultural exchange programs and other short-term training programs. The visas allow those holding them to remain in the country for months at a time and permit them to open U.S. bank accounts.

A statement released by the U.S. Attorney's Office said the actual thefts were perpetrated out of Eastern Europe by crooks who used the Zeus banking Trojan to break into computers at small businesses and small municipalities.

The malware was used to steal online banking credentials, which were then used to access bank accounts belonging to the small business or municipality. The perpetrators would then withdraw money from the compromised accounts, typically in amounts just under $10,000, and transfer it to fraudulent U.S. bank accounts set up by the money mules.

The mules would quickly withdraw the funds and send them to the perpetrators after retaining a portion of it -- about 10% -- for themselves.

One example is Ilya Karasev, a 22-year-old Russian who has been charged with conspiracy to commit bank fraud, plus two other charges. The conspiracy charge alone carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison.

Court documents describe Karasev as a mule who first entered the country on a J-1 visa in May 2008 and then converted his status to an F-1 student visa in December that year.

Karasev's misdeeds are alleged to have begun in April this year, when he opened a fraudulent bank account at TD Bank in New York using a fake Belgian passport issued under the fictitious name Fransoise Lewenstadd.



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