Two accused Romanian phishers plead innocent

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Two Romanian citizens allegedly involved in a large-scale phishing scam have been extradited to the United States, where they will face fraud and identity theft charges.

Petru Bogdan Belbita, 25, and Cornel Ionut Tonita, 28, were arrested this year on separate Interpol warrants and were extradited this month, according to a joint statement from the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice. After being extradited, both men pleaded innocent to the charges -- one count each of conspiracy to commit fraud in connection with access devices, conspiracy to commit bank fraud and aggravated identity theft.

According to prosecutors, the defendants delivered bogus emails to the customers of a number of financial institutions, including JP Morgan Chase, Comerica Bank, Wells Fargo, eBay and PayPal, with the goal of tricking them into giving up their personal information, such as credit card, bank account and Social Security numbers.

The investigation stemmed from a complaint filed by a customer of People's United Bank, based in Connecticut.

Five others have been charged for their role in the criminal ring. In March, one of the accused became the first foreign citizen ever to be sentenced to U.S. federal prison for involvement in a phishing scheme. Ovidiu-Ionut Nicola-Roman, 23, was the first of the seven suspects to be caught. He was sentenced to 50 months after being arrested in 2007 in Bulgaria on an Interpol warrant.

Meanwhile, Belbita and Tonita, if convicted of all charges, each face up to 37 years in prison and fines up to $1.5 million. The bank fraud charge alone carries a maximum prison term of 30 years.

In 2008, authorities busted a related Romanian-based identity theft ring that defrauded thousands of victims. A Los Angeles grand jury later returned an indictment that charged 33 people in connection with the scam.

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