Courts & Crime

Feds still trying to unravel largest credit card theft ever

MIAMI — On May 7, 2008, federal agents swept through Miami-Dade looking for evidence that one of their best informants was also one of the world's biggest cyberthiefs.

Searching three homes and a luxury hotel room in South Beach, they found 14 computers, $400,000 in cash, six firearms, expensive jewelry -- and even stumbled on a marijuana grow house.

What they missed was the most compelling evidence in Albert Gonzalez's life of crime: a three-foot drum buried in his parents' backyard stuffed with $1.1 million wrapped in plastic bags. The money -- like so many other pieces of evidence -- wasn't unearthed until this year by federal agents still unraveling a case that continues to confound even the most seasoned cyberspace investigators.

Federal agents announced after last year's raids that Gonzalez had orchestrated the largest credit-card heist in the nation's history -- 41 million cards stolen from Americans. But last week, they came back with even more evidence to show Gonzalez had masterminded a fraud three times as large.

Though Gonzalez has been in jail since the raids last year, investigators are still finding new evidence traced to the years the Miami native was ripping off millions of credit cards -- while on the Secret Service's payroll.

For years, Gonzalez was able to hide his activities -- skills honed since he was in grade school -- using fake identities and encrypted hard drives on computers scattered across the globe.

Even Gonzalez's lawyer says his client was a step ahead of investigators, including his own federal handlers. "I don't think the government was prepared to deal with a kid like Albert,'' said Rene Palomino Jr.

The charges against Gonzalez -- including last week's indictment -- exposed major security breakdowns at credit-card processors and dealt an embarrassing blow to federal agents paying him to help catch other cyberthieves.

The case also offers a glimpse into the intricate network of cybercriminals who reach across continents to buy and sell vast amounts of credit-card data on the worldwide black market.

"This is a magnitude we've never seen before by an individual or a small group of individuals,'' said Scott Mitic, CEO of TrustedID, an identity-theft protection company in California. "There's no doubt that this is the heist of the century.''

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