U.S. authorities charge 70 money mules in Zeus ring

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More than 70 individuals are facing state and federal charges in the United States for participating in an international cybercrime ring that used the insidious Zeus trojan to steal millions of dollars from American banks, officials from the U.S. attorney's office and the Manhattan district attorney's office announced Thursday.

The indictments come just one day after U.K. police arrested 19 people believed to be part of an organized crime network that also used the Zeus trojan to steal millions of dollars from U.K. bank accounts.

The defendants charged in the United States all were so-called "money mules" recruited by the Zeus gang to open bank accounts and cash out the fraudulent proceeds, Preet Bharara (left), U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced Thursday at a press conference in New York.

The defendants, all of whom were foreign students who came to the United States on exchange visitor visas, are charged with opening bank accounts at J.P. Morgan Chase Bank and other financial institutions for the purpose of receiving stolen funds from the bank accounts of identity theft victims, prosecutors said.

Authorities said the money mules helped accomplices overseas steal more than $3 million from dozens of individual and business accounts.

“This advanced cybercrime scheme is a disturbing example of organized crime in the 21 century,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance,said Thursday. “These criminals stole from ordinary citizens and businesses using a keyboard – not a gun.”

The investigation into the ring represents successful cooperation between city, state, federal and foreign law enforcement officials, Vance said.

The U.S. attorney's office charged 37 individuals for their roles in the scheme, and the Manhattan district attorney's office charged an additional 36 individuals. The defendants, many of whom are from the Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus, were indicted on various charges of identity theft, grand larceny and attempted grand larceny.

Of those indicted on federal charges, 20 were arrested in the New York and Pittsburgh areas, and 17 remain at large, said Janice Fedarcyk, assistant director in charge of the FBI's New York office. The defendants who have been arrested are expected to appear in Manhattan federal court on Thursday.

The defendants, who are all believed to have knowingly participated in the scheme, were recruited through social networking sites and newspaper advertisements, prosecutors said.

The Zeus trojan typically spreads through benign-looking emails. Once planted on a victim's computer, the malware allows attackers to steal victims' bank account information, access to which allows the transfer of money to the mule accounts.

The mules then withdraw the funds and sent a portion of it back to their accomplices.


Photo: Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, discusses a major Zeus bust at a press conference in Manhattan on Thursday. Photo for SC Magazine by Angela Moscaritolo.
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