Courts & Crime

Hacker in huge credit card theft honed computer skills early

MIAMI — Years before his arrest in the nation's largest credit card heist, Albert Gonzalez launched a bold plan from a computer in his high school library: hack into the government network of India.

By the time FBI agents descended on South Miami Senior High School, the quiet 17-year-old senior had already shattered the security systems and left his mark: offensive notes on government message boards.

The successful breach of a network across the world stunned school administrators, but showed Gonzalez was already demonstrating the skills that would define him as one of the most prolific hackers in United States history.

Now charged with stealing more than 130 million credit card numbers in a sweeping fraud case, the Miami native escaped punishment a decade ago when he tapped into Indian servers using two computers in his high school library.

"All of a sudden the FBI was at the school, and they want two of the computers in the library," recalled South Miami High principal Thomas L. Shaw. "This was really malicious stuff."

For Gonzalez, 28, the intrusion represented the beginning of a hacking career that prosecutors say would eventually touch the lives of millions of consumers across the country.

He has been charged three times since last year for masterminding massive schemes to steal credit and debit data from some of the nation's largest retailers and credit card processors. Now known as the king of identity thieves, Gonzalez began dabbling with computers innocently as a young boy growing up in a working class neighborhood of Miami-Dade, say those who remember him.

At 8 years old, his parents, Maria and Alberto, bought him his first computer just as the Internet was maturing, and by the time he was 9, he was already figuring out how to remove viruses, said his attorney and longtime family friend Rene Palomino Jr.

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