'Operation Phish Phry' Nets 100 Alleged Phishermen


Those defendants, including 53 in the U.S. and 47 in Egypt, allegedly tricked unsuspecting consumers into revealing personal information that was then used to access their bank accounts, the FBI said on Wednesday.

Pronounced "fishing," phishing is a scam to steal user information such as credit card and Social Security numbers, IDs and passwords. It works by sending an e-mail to a user that looks as if it came from a trusted person or from an institution such as a bank or retailer in an attempt to convince the recipient to send in personal information, which can then be used in identity theft or to access company information.

Laura Eimiller, public affairs specialist with the FBI's Los Angeles office, said individuals in Egypt conducted the phishing scheme on unsuspecting Americans.

Once they got access to the victims' account information, that information was sent to the defendants in the U.S., who then set up fraudulent accounts into which money from the victims' accounts was transferred, Eimiller said.

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At least $1.5 million was transferred from the victims' accounts to the fraudulent accounts, with some of it then being transferred to the Egyptian suspects. However, not all of those funds were accessed, as in some cases the banks realized the fraud in time, she said.

The FBI started working with U.S. financial institutions on Operation Phish Phry in 2007 to take proactive steps to identify and disrupt criminals targeting the U.S. financial infrastructure, according to the FBI.

After uncovering evidence of an Egyptian connection, the FBI contacted authorities in Egypt who agreed to work together with the FBI on the case.

Of the 53 named defendants, including residents of California, Nevada and North Carolina, 35 have been taken into custody, Eimiller said. Several of the Egyptian suspects also were taken into custody, Eimiller said, although she could not give an exact figure.

According to a grand jury indictment, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Los Angeles, the alleged ringleaders of the phishing operation were three California residents who directed associates to recruit "runners" who would then set up the bank accounts into which funds from the compromised accounts would be transferred.

A portion of the illegally-obtained funds were then transferred to the Egyptian defendants.

The banks from which the funds were illegally withdrawn were Bank of America and Wells Fargo, according to the indictment.