A summer-long effort targeting Internet crime has resulted in dozens of arrests and convictions on charges including use of “spam” e-mail to steal credit card numbers, computer hacking and online fraud, Justice Department officials said Thursday.
The suspects were identified during more than 160 federal investigations into a variety of Internet crimes that victimized about 150,000 people and caused $215 million in estimated losses, Attorney General John Ashcroft said. The initiative began June 1 and ended Thursday.
Although the arrests make only a tiny dent in overall online crime, Ashcroft said it was important that law enforcement officials demonstrate they take the problem seriously. Identity theft alone, he said, costs the U.S. economy an estimated $50 billion a year.
“This is a series of cases that is designed to signal that we do not believe the Internet to be off-base for law enforcement,” Ashcroft told reporters.
John A. Greco Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Direct Marketing Association, said the cases targeting purveyors of e-mail spam would help build trust among consumers about using the Internet to buy legitimate goods and services.
“For too long, spammers have operated with impunity,” he said. “For too long, they have taken comfort in the shadows of cyberspace.”
Announcement of the initiative came one day after the Justice Department disclosed the FBI had searched homes and an Internet service provider in the nation’s first federal copyright infringement action taken against a peer-to-peer, or P2P, network, in which users can access files directly from one another’s computer hard drives.
The effort described Thursday, dubbed “Operation Web Snare,” produced 103 arrests and 53 convictions during the three-month time frame, although some of them overlap and some convictions were included in the total for people arrested before the initiative began. The Federal Trade Commission, FBI, Postal Inspection Service and foreign agencies were all involved.
Among the cases:
- The June arrests of two men on charges of conspiring to steal a copy of the entire list of 92 million America Online members, with the goal of selling it to e-mail “spammers” who would then be able to send members unwanted messages.
- Roman Vega, a Ukrainian arrested in Cyprus, was extradited to California in June to face charges of buying and selling credit card numbers obtained illegally from sources around the world, including online merchants and financial processing companies.
- Jay R. Echouafni, chief executive officer of Orbit Communications Corp. in Massachusetts, was indicted this week along with five others on charges that he hired computer hackers to attack his firm’s online competitors. Prosecutors say the attack cost the competitors $2 million and temporarily disrupted Web sites for the Homeland Security Department and Amazon.com.
- In Utah, R. Mark Pentrack is serving an 11-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to several charges stemming from a scheme in which he purported to sell car parts, aircraft parts and other items over the Internet but never delivered them. Pentrack’s victims sent him more than $200,000.