Category Archives: FBI alert

Crime Ring Recruited Short-Term Visa Holders


International Fraud
Crime Ring Recruited Short-Term Visa Holders




The recruitment pitch to students on short-term visas must have seemed irresistible: give us your good name and some help in our fraud scheme, and we’ll put money—potentially thousands of dollars—in your wallet before your return trip home.


In charges unsealed late last month in San Diego, FBI agents and their law enforcement partners named dozens of young visa holders from former Soviet-bloc countries who took the bait and became willing co-conspirators in a range of elaborate fraud schemes. In four separate indictments, a federal grand jury laid bare how a Los Angeles-based Armenian crime ring ran scams in L.A. and San Diego that relied on a steady tide of accomplices whose time was short in the U.S. While the crimes themselves were not especially novel—identity theft, bank fraud, tax fraud—the explicit recruitment of co-conspirators with expiring visas was a twist.


“The J-1 visa holders are a commodity in these cases,” said Special Agent Davene Butler, who works in our San Diego Division. She described how a few masterminds enlisted young accomplices to do much of the legwork in their fraud schemes—opening bank accounts and securing apartments and post office boxes to route proceeds from bogus tax returns, for example. By the time a scam came to light, the “foot soldiers” holding J-1 and F-1 visas—which allow foreigners to study and travel in the U.S. for brief periods—would be long gone. “They were essential in the schemes,” Butler said.


The charges announced on September 26 named 55 individuals and followed a two-year investigation led by the San Diego FBI, local authorities, and the IRS, which paid out more than $7 million in bogus tax refunds. About half of those charged were arrested last month in a nationwide sweep, but more than 25 remain at large, including 24 who are believed to have left the country. The FBI is asking for the public’s help locating some of the suspects, including one of the crime ring’s main architects, Hovhannes Harutyunyan, 34, an Armenian whose last known address was in Burbank, California.


The charges show four primary schemes. Here’s how they worked:


  • Using stolen identities, the crime ring filed about 2,000 fraudulent tax returns claiming more than $20 million in refunds. J-1 students obtained addresses and bank accounts for the fraudulent refunds to be sent.
  • Conspirators set up bank accounts and began writing checks back and forth to create a good transaction history, which banks rewarded by shortening or eliminating holds on deposited checks. Then the so-called “seed” accounts wrote bad checks to 60 “bust-out” accounts, which paid out more than $680,000.
  • Conspirators obtained personal information about the identities and accounts of wealthy bank customers and disguised themselves as the account holders. They practiced forging documents and impersonating the account holders, and succeeded in obtaining $551,842. They laundered the money by purchasing gold with the stolen funds.
  • Conspirators obtained pre-paid debit cards in the names of identity theft victims and opened bank accounts in the names of visa holders who sold their account information before leaving the U.S. They then filed more than 400 fraudulent tax returns seeking more than $3 million.


“This investigation involved multiple complex fraudulent schemes resulting in significant losses to financial institutions and American taxpayers,” said San Diego FBI Special Agent in Charge Daphne Hearn.


Agent Butler said the charges and arrests send a message that these schemes are not without consequences. Those who have already fled won’t find it easy to get back to the U.S. “And they won’t be able to tell their friends that they can come to the U.S., commit fraud, get some quick cash, and that nothing will happen to them,” she said.


If you have any information about these cases, please contact the FBI at (858) 320-1800 or online at




Courtroom for Sale Judge Gets Jail Time in Racketeering Case

Judge’s gavel over cash

Courtroom for Sale
Judge Gets Jail Time in Racketeering Case


In a case that exposed widespread corruption in a South Texas county’s judicial system—reaching all the way to the district attorney’s office—a former state judge was recently sentenced to six years in prison for taking bribes and kickbacks in return for favorable rulings from his bench.

Abel Limas, 59, a lifelong resident of Brownsville, Texas, served as a police officer and practiced law before becoming a state judge in Cameron County in 2001. He served eight years on the bench, during which time he turned his courtroom into a criminal enterprise to line his own pockets.

“The depth of the corruption was shocking,” said Mark Gripka, a special agent in our San Antonio Division who was part of the team that investigated the case. “What was more shocking was how cheaply Judge Limas sold his courtroom—$300 here, $500 there—in return for a favorable ruling.”

There was plenty of big money involved as well. Limas received more than $250,000 in bribes and kickbacks while he was on the bench. He took money from attorneys with civil cases pending in his court in return for favorable pre-trial rulings, most notably in a case involving a Texas helicopter crash that was later settled for $14 million. Referring to an $8,000 payment Limas received in that case, our investigators listened on the telephone as he described the cash to an accomplice as eight golf balls. “Their code language didn’t fool anybody,” Gripka said.

Evidence also showed that Limas made a deal with the attorneys in the helicopter crash case to become an “of counsel” attorney with the firm. He was promised an advance of $100,000 and 10 percent of the settlement—all while the case was still pending in his court.


Over a 14-month period beginning in November 2007, investigators used court-authorized wiretaps to listen to the judge’s phone calls. “That’s when we really learned the scope of what he was doing,” Gripka explained. The judge’s nearly $100,000 annual salary was not enough to support his lifestyle, which included regular gambling trips to Las Vegas.

In 2010, when Limas was faced with the overwhelming evidence against him, he began to cooperate in a wider public corruption investigation—and our agents learned that the Cameron County district attorney at the time, Armando Villalobos, was also corrupt. The investigation showed, among other criminal activities, that Villalobos accepted $80,000 in cash in exchange for taking actions that allowed a convicted murderer to be released for 60 days without bond prior to reporting to prison. The murderer failed to report to prison and remains a fugitive.

Limas pled guilty to racketeering in 2011. By that time, he had helped authorities uncover wide-ranging corruption in the Cameron County judicial system. To date, 10 other defendants have been convicted by a jury or pled guilty as part of the FBI’s six-year investigation, including a former Texas state representative, three attorneys, a former investigator for the district attorney’s office, and Villalobos, who is scheduled to be sentenced next month on racketeering, extortion, and bribery charges.

“During the course of this investigation, we interviewed over 800 people, including many local attorneys in Cameron County,” Gripka said. “We hope this case shows everyone that the government will not tolerate officials who violate the public trust. Fighting public corruption is a priority for the FBI,” he added, “and it is something we take very seriously.”

Press release

Extortion Scam Related to Delinquent Payday Loans

Washington, D.C. December 07, 2010

FBI National Press Office (202) 324-3691

The Internet Crime Complaint Center have received many complaints from victims of payday loan telephone collection scams. Callers IC3claim the victim is delinquent in a payday loan and must repay the loan to avoid legal consequences. The callers purport to be representatives of the FBI, Federal Legislative Department, various law firms, or other legitimate-sounding agencies. They claim to be collecting debts for companies such as United Cash Advance, U.S. Cash Advance, U.S. Cash Net, and other Internet check-cashing services.

According to complaints received from the public, the callers have accurate data about victims, including Social Security numbers, dates of birth, addresses, employer information, bank account numbers, and the names and telephone numbers of relatives and friends. How the fraudsters obtained the personal information varies, but in some cases victims have reported they completed online applications for other loans or credit cards before the calls started.

The fraudsters relentlessly call the victim’s home, cell phone, and place of employment. They refuse to provide any details about the alleged payday loans and become abusive when questioned. The callers have threatened victims with legal actions, arrests, and, in some cases, physical violence if they do not pay. In many cases, the callers harass victims’ relatives, friends, and employers.

Some fraudsters have instructed victims to fax a statement agreeing to pay a certain amount, on a specific date, via a pre-paid Visa card. The statement further declares the victim will never dispute the debt.

If you receive these calls, do not follow the caller’s instructions. Rather, you should:

Notify your banking institutions.
Contact the three major credit bureaus and request an alert be put on your file.
Contact your local law enforcement agencies if you feel you are in immediate danger.
File a complaint at

Tips to avoid becoming a victim of this scam:

Never give your Social Security number—or personal information of any kind—over the telephone or online unless you initiate the contact.
Be suspicious of any e-mail with urgent requests for personal financial information. The e-mail may include upsetting or exciting but false statements to get you to react immediately.
Avoid filling out forms in e-mail messages that request personal information.
Ensure that your browser is up-to-date and security patches have been applied.
Check your bank, credit, and debit card statements regularly to make sure that there are no unauthorized transactions. If anything looks suspicious, contact your bank and all card issuers.
When you contact companies, use numbers provided on the back of cards or statements

Feds Indicated 5 For Data Breach Conspiracy

The US Attorney in New Jersey announced the indicated of five (5) individuals involve in major bank heists and data breaches against US Companies. These individuals appears to be Russians and Ukrainian nationals with the help of Albert “Soupnazi” Gonzalez, the ring leader. The press release is below.


July 25, 2013

 Hackers Targeted Major Payment Processors, Retailers and Financial Institutions Around the World

NEWARK, N.J. – A federal indictment made public today in New Jersey charges five men with conspiring in a worldwide hacking and data breach scheme that targeted major corporate networks, stole more than 160 million credit card numbers, resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in losses and is the largest such scheme ever prosecuted in the United States.

New Jersey U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman announced the charges today along with Special Agent in Charge James Mottola of the U.S. Secret Service (USSS), Criminal Investigations, Newark Division and Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division Mythili Raman. The USSS led the investigation of the indicted conspiracy.

The defendants allegedly sought corporate victims engaged in financial transactions, retailers that received and transmitted financial data and other institutions with information they could exploit for profit. The defendants are charged with attacks on NASDAQ, 7-Eleven, Carrefour, JCP, Hannaford, Heartland, Wet Seal, Commidea, Dexia, JetBlue, Dow Jones, Euronet, Visa Jordan, Global Payment, Diners Singapore and Ingenicard. It is not alleged that the NASDAQ hack affected its trading platform.

“This type of crime is the cutting edge,” U.S. Attorney Fishman said. “Those who have the expertise and the inclination to break into our computer networks threaten our economic well-being, our privacy, and our national security.  And this case shows there is a real practical cost because these types of frauds increase the costs of doing business for every American consumer, every day.  We cannot be too vigilant and we cannot be too careful.”

“The defendants charged today were allegedly responsible for spearheading a world-wide hacking conspiracy that victimized a wide array of consumers and entities, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in losses,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Raman said. “Despite substantial efforts by the defendants to conceal their alleged crimes, the Department and its law enforcement counterparts have cracked this extensive scheme and are seeking justice for its many victims.  Today’s indictment will no doubt serve as a serious warning to those who would utilize illegal and fraudulent means to steal sensitive information online.”

“As is evident by this indictment, the Secret Service will continue to apply innovative techniques to successfully investigate and arrest transnational cyber criminals,” said Special Agent in Charge Mottola of the Newark Field Office. “While the global nature of cyber-crime continues to have a profound impact on our financial institutions, this case demonstrates the global investigative steps that U.S. Secret Service Special Agents are taking to ensure that criminals will be pursued and prosecuted no matter where they reside.”

According to the second superseding indictment unsealed today in Newark federal court and other court filings:

The five men each served particular roles in the scheme. Vladimir Drinkman, 32, of Syktyykar and Moscow, Russia, and Alexandr Kalinin, 26, of St. Petersburg, Russia, each specialized in penetrating network security and gaining access to the corporate victims’ systems. Roman Kotov, 32, of Moscow, also a hacker, specialized in mining the networks Drinkman and Kalinin compromised to steal valuable data. The hackers hid their activities using anonymous web-hosting services provided by Mikhail Rytikov, 26, of Odessa, Ukraine.  Dmitriy Smilianets, 29, of Moscow, sold the information stolen by the other conspirators and distributed the proceeds of the scheme to the participants.

Kalinin and Drinkman were previously charged in New Jersey as “Hacker 1” and “Hacker 2” in a 2009 indictment charging Albert Gonzalez, 32, of Miami, in connection with five corporate data breaches – including the breach of Heartland Payment Systems Inc., which at the time was the largest ever reported. Gonzalez is currently serving 20 years in federal prison for those offenses. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York today announced two additional indictments against Kalinin: one charges him in connection with hacking certain computer servers used by NASDAQ and a second indictment, unsealed today, charged Kalinin and another Russian hacker, Nikolay Nasenkov, with an international scheme to steal bank account information by hacking U.S.-based financial institutions.  Rytikov was previously charged in the Eastern District of Virginia with an unrelated scheme. Kotov and Smilianets have not previously been charged publicly in the United States.

Drinkman and Smilianets were arrested at the request of the United States while traveling in the Netherlands on June 28, 2012. Smilianets was extradited Sept. 7, 2012, and remains in federal custody. He will appear in District of New Jersey federal court to be arraigned on the superseding indictment on a date to be determined. Drinkman is in custody in the Netherlands pending an extradition hearing. Kalinin, Kotov and Rytikov remain at large. All of the defendants are Russian nationals except for Rytikov, who is a citizen of Ukraine.

The Attacks

The five defendants conspired with others to penetrate the computer networks of several of the largest payment processing companies, retailers and financial institutions in the world, stealing the personal identifying information of individuals. They took user names and passwords, means of identification, credit and debit card numbers and other corresponding personal identification information of cardholders. Conservatively, the conspirators unlawfully acquired more than 160 million card numbers through hacking.

The initial entry was often gained using a “SQL injection attack.” SQL, or Structured Query Language, is a type of programing language designed to manage data held in particular types of databases; the hackers identified vulnerabilities in SQL databases and used those vulnerabilities to infiltrate a computer network. Once the network was infiltrated, the defendants placed malicious code, or malware, on the system. This malware created a “back door,” leaving the system vulnerable and helping the defendants maintain access to the network.  In some cases, the defendants lost access to the system due to companies’ security efforts, but were able to regain access through persistent attacks.

Instant message chats obtained by law enforcement reveal the defendants often targeted the victim companies for many months, waiting patiently as their efforts to bypass security were underway. The defendants had malware implanted in multiple companies’ servers for more than a year.

The defendants used their access to the networks to install “sniffers,” which were programs designed to identify, collect and steal data from the victims’ computer networks. The defendants then used an array of computers located around the world to store the stolen data and ultimately sell it to others.

Selling the Data

After acquiring the card numbers and associated data – which they referred to as “dumps” – the conspirators sold it to resellers around the world. The buyers then sold the dumps through online forums or directly to individuals and organizations. Smilianets was in charge of sales, vending the data only to trusted identity theft wholesalers. He would charge approximately $10 for each stolen American credit card number and associated data, approximately $50 for each European credit card number and associated data and approximately $15 for each Canadian credit card number and associated data – offering discounted pricing to bulk and repeat customers. Ultimately, the end users encoded each dump onto the magnetic strip of a blank plastic card and cashed out the value of the dump by either withdrawing money from ATMs or making purchases with the cards.

Covering Their Tracks

The defendants used a number of methods to conceal the scheme. Unlike traditional Internet service providers, Rytikov allowed his clients to hack with the knowledge he would never keep records of their online activities or share information with law enforcement.

Over the course of the conspiracy, the defendants communicated through private and encrypted communications channels to avoid detection. Fearing law enforcement would intercept even those communications, some of the conspirators attempted to meet in person.

To protect against detection by the victim companies, the defendants altered the settings on victim company networks to disable security mechanisms from logging their actions. The defendants also worked to evade existing protections by security software.

*          *          *

As a result of the scheme, financial institutions, credit card companies and consumers suffered hundreds of millions in losses – including more than $300 million in losses reported by just three of the corporate victims – and immeasurable losses to the identity theft victims in costs associated with stolen identities and false charges.

The maximum potential penalties for each defendant per count are as follows:

Count(s) Defendants Violation Maximum Penalty/Count
1 All Conspiracy to gain unauthorized access to computers 5 years; $250,000 fine or twice the gain or loss from the offense
2 All Conspiracy to commit wire fraud 30 years; $1 million fine or twice the gain or loss from the offense
3-8 Drinkman
Unauthorized access to computers 5 years; $250,000 fine or twice the gain or loss from the offense
9-11 Drinkman
Wire fraud 30 years; $1 million fine or twice the gain or loss from the offense

U.S. Attorney Fishman credited the special agents of the U.S. Secret Service, Criminal Investigations, under the direction of Director Pierson, and special agents from the Newark Division, under the direction of Special Agent in Charge James Mottola, for the ongoing investigation leading to today’s charges.

The government is represented by Erez Liebermann, Deputy Chief of the New Jersey U.S. Attorney’s Office Criminal Division; Assistant U.S. Attorney Gurbir Grewal of the Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property Section of the Office’s Economic Crimes Unit; and Trial Attorney James Silver of the Department of Justice’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section in Washington.

U.S. Attorney Fishman thanked the Department’s Office of International Affairs in Washington for their extraordinary support, as well as public prosecutors with the Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice and the National High Tech Crime Unit of the Dutch National Police. Fishman also acknowledged the U.S. Attorney’s Offices in the District of Kansas and the Northern District of Georgia for their valuable contributions in the development of the prosecution.

The charges and allegations contained in the indictment are merely accusations and the defendants are considered innocent unless and until proven guilty.


Defense counsel:

Vladimir Drinkman: Bart Stapert Esq., Amsterdam, Netherlands (for Netherlands-based proceedings)
Dmitriy Smilianets: Bruce Provda Esq., Queens, N.Y.

Drinkman, Vladimir Et Al., Indictment


The IC3 has received hundreds of complaints from individuals claiming they located IC3their mug shots on 20 different websites, all of which allegedly use similar business practices. Some victims reported they were juveniles at the time of the arrests and their records were sealed. Therefore, their information should not be available to the public. Others stated the information posted on the sites was either incorrect or blatantly false.

Complainants who requested to have their mug shot removed, had to provide a copy of their driver’s license, court record and other personal identifying information. However, providing such information puts those at risk for identify theft.

Complainants were also subject to paying a fee to have their mug shot removed. Although they paid the fee, some of the mug shots were not removed. If they were removed, the mug shots appeared on similar websites.

If the victim threatened to report the websites for unlawful practice, the websites’ owners threatened to escalate the damaging information against the victim.


The IC3 has recently received complaints from businesses regardingIC3telephone calls from individuals claiming to be with a wire transfer company’s tech support. One complainant reported that the wire transfer company’s name was displayed on their caller ID. The callers instructed the victims to go to a particular website to run an application which allows the caller to remotely access the victim’s computer.

Once remote access was established, the victims were instructed to open their wire transfer program and log-in to their accounts, so the callers could update the system. The victims were then told to turn off their monitors, to avoid interference with the update.

The victims later discovered the subjects made wire transfers to NetSpend accounts. One victim noticed something downloading onto his computer once the caller gained remote access. This made the victim suspicious, so he turned off his computer. Later, he discovered the caller had loaded $950 on a prepaid credit card from the victim’s account.

Another victim reported money transfers were made to various states and individuals, but the caller reassured the victim that no transfers were actually being processed. No other details were provided.


SC Magazine featured the following article on June 1, 2013IC3

Users receiving shortened URLs in Skype instant messages, or similar IM platforms, should be wary of a new trojan, called Liftoh.

So far, it has primarily infected users in Latin America, said Rodrigo Calvo, a researcher at Symantec.

When targeted, victims receive a message in Spanish containing a shortened URL. The messages appear as if they are coming from someone on the user’s Skype contact list who is linking to a photo. If clicked, the link redirects users to, which is hosting a URL, which initiates a weaponized zip file containing Liftoh. The trojan is capable of downloading additional malware.

The malicious URLs have been clicked on more than 170,000 times, according to Symantec.