Romania becoming hub for cyber-crime

BUCHAREST, Romania — It was nearly 70 degrees below zero outside, but the e-mail on a computer at the South Pole Research Center sent a different kind of chill through the scientists inside.

“I’ve hacked into the server. Pay me off or I’ll sell the station’s data to another country and tell the world how vulnerable you are,” the message warned.

Proving it was no hoax, the message included scientific data showing that the extortionist had roamed freely around the server, which controlled the 50 researchers’ life-support systems.

The FBI traced the e-mail to an Internet cafe in Bucharest and helped Romanian police arrest two suspects — the latest evidence that computer-savvy Romanians are fast emerging as a bold menace in the shadowy world of cyber-crime.

“It’s one of the leading places for this kind of activity,” said Gabrielle Burger, who runs the FBI’s office in Bucharest and is working with Romanian authorities to arrest cyber-baddies “and avoid the September 11 of cyber-crime.”

Law enforcement documents portray a loosely organized but increasingly aggressive network of young Romanians conspiring with accomplices in Europe and the United States to steal millions of dollars each year from consumers and companies.

Their specialties: defrauding consumers through bogus Internet purchases, extorting cash from companies after hacking into their systems, and designing and disseminating computer-crippling worms and viruses.

Alarmed authorities say the South Pole case underscores the global impact of this new breed of cyber-outlaw.

“Frustrated with the employment possibilities offered in Romania, some of the world’s most-talented computer students are exploiting their talents online,” the U.S.-based Internet Fraud Complaint Center, run by the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, said in a recent report.

Computer crime flourished in Romania because the country lacked a cyber-crime law until this year, when it enacted what might be the world’s harshest. The new law punishes convicts with up to 15 years in prison — more than twice the maximum for rape.

Varujan Pambuccian, a lawmaker and former programmer, helped draft the new law after Romania’s government realized that the country, which is moving to join the European Union by 2007, was getting a bad online reputation.

“We want a good name for our country,” he said. “I’m very angry that Romania is so well-known for ugly things — for street dogs, street children and hackers.” Mr. Pambuccian said there was a noticeable decline in criminal activity in the first three months after the law took effect.

More than 60 Romanians have been arrested in recent joint operations involving the FBI, Secret Service, Scotland Yard, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and numerous European police agencies.

They include the two suspects implicated in the South Pole extortion attempt last May. Both are awaiting trial. Another Romanian pair was arrested on suspicion of extorting cash from Integrity Media of Mobile, Ala., after information on 30,000 credit-card accounts was stolen in March.

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