Threat Management

Cyber crime ringleader sentenced to five years in prison

A lead figure in what's considered to be the largest cybercrime bust in history was sentenced on Tuesday to more than five years inprison.

Nichole Michelle Merzi, 26, of Oceanside, Calif., played anintegral part in what authorities code-named “Operation Phish Phry,” aninternational phishing ring that looted more than $1 million.

Merzi, who has been in custody since she was convicted lastyear of bank and wire fraud conspiracy, aggravated identity theft, computerfraud conspiracy and money laundering, was found guilty of all charges by adistrict judge, according to a statement released by the Federal Bureau ofInvestigation (FBI).

The operation was a multinational probe that ended in anindictment in the fall of 2009, leading to charges filed against 100 hackersliving in the United States and Egypt on counts of computer fraud, conspiracyto commit bank fraud, money laundering and aggravated identity theft.

The two figures at the helm of the operation were Merzi andher then-boyfriend, Kenneth Lucas II, who was sentenced in June of 2011 to 11years in prison after pleading guilty to 49 counts of bank and wire fraud,aggravated identity theft, computer fraud and money laundering conspiracy.

The ringleaders teamed up with cyber criminals in Egypt who hijackedthe bank account information from Wells Fargo and Bank of America customers throughcommon phishing techniques. According to the FBI, victims of the scheme wouldreceive emails appearing to be from their banks, and were then redirected to websites that posed as official banking institutions asking for their credentials.

Once the swindlers stole the information, Lucas and Merziwould enlist the help of money mules who would set up bank accounts toreceive, store and transfer money overseas and into accounts in Southern California, said the statement.

The investigation was a joint effort led by the FBI, withsupport from the Social Security Administration's Office of SpecialInvestigations, as well as the Electronic Task Force in Los Angeles.

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