An Ohio woman accused in federal court of using mass forged e-mails from "AOL security" to swindle America Online subscribers out of their credit card numbers was allegedly tracked down after spamming exactly the wrong person: an FBI agent specializing in computer fraud, according to court records.
Helen Carr pleaded not-guilty last week to a two count federal indictment charging her with conspiring with colleagues in the spam community to send mass e-mails to AOL subscribers purporting to be from "Steve Baldger" from AOL's security department.
The messages claimed that AOL's last attempt to bill the recipient's credit card had failed, and included a link to an "AOL Billing Center" webpage, where an online form demanded the user's name, address, credit card number, expiration date, three-digit CCV number and credit card limit.
In recent years the so-called "phishing" scams have developed as a popular and annoying technique for fraudsters to swindle people out of everything from PayPal accounts to ATM codes. Despite some publicity surrounding fake e-mails from PayPal, AOL, eBay, CitiBank, Barclays, and other businesses, enough Internet users are still falling for the scam for it remain profitable, says Dan Clements, founder of CardCops, a business that tracks credit card abuse. "People do respond to these, especially when they hit AOL," says Clements. "AOL users are the newbies, so they're way more susceptible to these scams."
But an FBI agent in the Norfolk field office was apparently not taken in when he received one of the e-mails in February, 2001. Not the most sophisticated variant on the scam, the message came from "email@example.com" and was sent to 19 other AOL users at the same time. The webpage was served by Geocities. "[A] legitimate AOL billing center would not be found at this location," agent Joseph Yuhasz wrote in an affidavit in the case.
Yuhasz sent a copy of the webpage to what was then the Special Technologies and Applications Unit of the bureau's National Infrastructure Protection Center, which determined that the site was designed to e-mail its ill-gotten bounty to a particular Yahoo account.
From there, a cooperative Yahoo official and some helpful ISPs led the g-man to homes in Pennsylvania and Michigan. Subsequent raids on the homes yielded quick confessions from a professional spammer and a credit card thief, both of whom snitched on Carr, naming her as the ringleader of the operation, according to the FBI affidavit. A search of Carr's Ohio home turned up two computers packed with files relating to the scam. Carr allegedly admitted to agents that she had a role in the operation.
It was a lot of crime-busting for a petty scam. But then, Exhibit A was sent right to the FBI's inbox.
"Because she's in the U.S., they went after her," says Clements. "The significant portions of these scams come from foreign servers, in which the hackers have root access, so you basically can't track them down."
Trial in the case is set for November.