- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 12, 2009

A computer hacker who authorities describe as the mastermind of the worst credit card scam in history pleaded guilty Friday to stealing more than 40 million credit card numbers.

Albert Gonzalez, 28, of Miami, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Boston to 19 counts of conspiracy, computer and wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.

He faces up to 25 years in prison when sentenced in December. He still faces separate federal hacking charges in New Jersey that could bring him another 25 years in prison.

Gonzalez’s attorney, Rene Palomino Jr., told the Associated Press that his client is “extremely remorseful.”

“He just feels really bad, mainly because of the damage he’s caused, but also because of what his family has had to endure,” Mr. Palomino said. “He just wants to go ahead and do the right thing and take responsibility for his actions. One day, he will go and lead a productive life like any other citizen.”

In the Boston case, authorities say, Gonzalez need only a laptop computer to hack into the networks of TJX Companies - a discount chain that operates Marshall’s, TJ Maxx, BJ’s Wholesale Club, OfficeMax, Boston Market, Barnes & Noble and Sports Authority. He was indicted on charges related to those computer hacks in August 2008.

“Consumers must be able to trust that the credit and debit cards they use every day in thousands of stores around the world are safe from unlawful access,” said Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer.

Gonzalez once helped authorities track other hackers. He became an informant for the Secret Service after a 2003 hacking arrest.

Authorities said his cooperation led them to a Web site that was used to transmit stolen credit card information, in a case in which law enforcement used a wiretap on a computer system for the first time.

But authorities now say he never left behind his life of crime.

Last month, Gonzalez was indicted in New Jersey on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Authorities say he hacked into the computer systems of major American retail and financial outlets and stole data connected to more than 130 million credit and debit cards.

He is accused of targeting the 7-Eleven convenience store chain; Heartland Payment Systems, a New Jersey-based company that is one of the world’s largest credit and debit card payment-processing companies; and Hannaford Brothers, a supermarket chain in the Northeast.

Authorities say Gonzalez and his accomplices would sell the stolen data to others over the Internet.

They chose their victims carefully. Authorities say they reviewed lists of Fortune 500 companies, went to retail outlets to study the payment systems for vulnerabilities and visited the Web sites of other companies in an effort to expose weaknesses.

Authorities say they also took great pains to conceal their crimes by leasing computers under fake names and disguising their locations with phony Internet protocol addresses. Along with stealing credit and debit card information from their victims’ computer systems, authorities say, Gonzalez and his cohorts installed what are known as “sniffers” to intercept in real-time information that their victims were processing.

It is unknown exactly what impact this will have on individual consumers. An estimated 1 billion credit cards and 250 million debit cards have been issued in the U.S.

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