Hacking kingpin negotiating plea deal with feds

Gonzalez's attorney, U.S. working to hammer out plea deal to cover three indictments

The former government informant facing three separate indictments for allegedly being behind the largest data breaches in U.S. history is being offered a plea deal, U.S. and defense attorneys confirmed today.

The plea negotiations with Albert Gonzalez, 28, of Miami, who was indicted Monday for the third time in connection with major data breaches, were confirmed by a source inside the U.S. Department of Justice, who asked not to be identified, and Attorney Rene Palomino of Miami, who's representing Gonzalez.

Palomino said he hopes to reach an agreement with prosecutors that covers charges in all three indictments over the next several weeks. "We're trying to work out one small detail that's left," he said.

In the latest indictment, handed down by a federal grand jury in New Jersey, Gonzalez and two accomplices were charged with running an international scheme to steal more than 130 million credit and debit card numbers, as well as personal identifying information from five companies, including Heartland Payment Systems, 7-Eleven and Hannaford Bros.

Gonzalez was also indicted by grand juries in the Eastern District of New York on May 12, 2008, and the District of Massachusetts on Aug. 5, 2008, on charges related to separate data breaches at TJX, Dave & Buster's, BJ's Wholesale Club, OfficeMax, Boston Market, Barnes & Noble, Sports Authority, Forever 21 and DSW.

Before the Heartland hack was disclosed, the TJX breach had been considered the largest ever, with 45.6 million credit and debit card numbers stolen.

An all-encompassing deal would mean that the government would not have to put on three separate criminal trials.

Right now, Gonzalez is being held in a detention center in Brooklyn, N.Y., awaiting a scheduled September trial for the Dave & Buster's breach. If no deal is reached, he then would face a separate trial in Massachusetts and a third one in New Jersey.

Palomino, who claims his client suffers from computer addiction, today said that he had been negotiating a plea deal with prosecutors even before the New Jersey indictment was announced yesterday. "This New Jersey indictment is nothing new," he added. "We knew something was coming out, and it was always part of the negotiations."

Gonzalez became an informant for the U.S. Secret Service after his 2003 arrest in New Jersey on charges of ATM and debit card fraud, according to another DOJ official, who also asked not to be named.

In 2004, Gonzalez provided information that helped the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark, N.J., bust up what at the time was one of the largest online centers for stolen identity and credit card information. The online underground marketplace, dubbed the Shadowcrew, was charged with trafficking more than 1.5 million stolen credit and ATM card numbers.

While Gonzalez was cooperating with the government, he allegedly was working with different hacker groups to steal millions of credit and debit card numbers, along with personally identifying information.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Erez Liebermann, who is prosecuting the case against Gonzalez in New Jersey, said that in addition to his alleged hacking skills, Gonzalez is a great organizer. He noted that Gonzalez is alleged to have worked with a different crew in each of the three incidents he has been indicted for.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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