A group of young internet fraudsters who set up an online criminal forum which traded unlawfully obtained credit card details and tools to commit computer offences were jailed for a total of 15 and half years. All pleaded guilty.
The gang are believed to have been responsible for the largest English-language online cyber crime forum and were all arrested on various dates in 2009 and 2010, following a complex investigation.
During an eleven month investigation detectives uncovered evidence that the defendants were directly involved in the global forum (used by over 8,000 members) which promoted and facilitated:
- The electronic theft of personal information
- Credit and debit card fraud; buying and selling of personal information (including passwords and PIN numbers)
- The creation and exchange of malicious computer programs (malware)
- The establishment and maintenance of networks of infected personal computers (botnets)
- Tutorials offering advice on how to commit such offences, including how to evade and frustrate law enforcement activity and the exchange of details of vulnerable commercial sites and servers.
The founder of the forum was Nicholas Webber. Having established a web site named www.GhostMarket.net, he acted as “administrator’ and had overall control of the site.
An examination of the rebuilt forum and its database revealed many thousands of data entries relating to individuals’ personal details including names, dates of birth, bank details, passwords, PayPal accounts and social security numbers. Site members are believed to have traded in compromised databases containing thousands of personal details including bank account numbers, PIN numbers, passwords and malware including the Zeus Trojan and other types of criminal software, including credit card verification programs.
During the investigation detectives recovered from the defendants’ computers more than 130,000 compromised credit card numbers, which at an estimated industry loss of £120 per card, is a potential £15.8 million financial loss in relation to card numbers alone.
On 3 November 2009 detectives arrested Gary Paul Kelly after executing a search warrant at his home address. A full search of the property was conducted, with a number of computers and mobile phones removed from the address for examination.
It was established that Kelly had independently constructed and distributed across the web a sophisticated Zeus malicious computer program which enabled him to infect and compromise over 15,000 computers in over 150 countries, harvesting from them over 4 million lines of data – including huge quantities of credit card numbers and other confidential, personal information.
Having been provided with relevant passwords by Kelly, detectives were able to rebuild the GhostMarket forum and its database using files from his PC.
Prior to this, on 12 October Nicholas Webber and Ryan Thomas were arrested at a five star central London hotel for using stolen credit card details to pay for accommodation in the penthouse suite. They claimed to have responded to an online advert, saying they had paid money to an anonymous individual.
Bailed to return whilst officers conducted further inquiries, items including their laptops were seized. In addition they were found to be in possession of business cards brandishing the ‘GhostMarket’ logo, advertising it as “A new era in virtual marketing” with the by-line “I’m a carder, ask about me…”
The duo’s involvement in the ‘GhostMarket’ criminal forum was soon established and inquiries were made to trace them after they fail to return on bail in relation to the stolen credit card offence.
It was later discovered that on 31 October the pair had flown out to Palma, Majorca, where they had been living in a rented flat in Port D’andrax.
On 29 January 2010 they were arrested at Gatwick Airport as they flew in from Palma.
The following day a search of Webber’s home address revealed a computer containing a series of files outlining a step-by-step guide to committing various criminal offences.
Owing to the volume of evidence to be examined and the complexities of the case, the pair were released on police bail to return at a later date.
Officers subsequently travelled to Spain and, accompanied by Spanish Police, attended the flat Thomas and Webber had rented out. The property was empty, but local enquiries established that the contents had been posted back to their UK addresses.
Those items, as well as additional computer equipment, were subsequently recovered.
Through the forensic examination of seized computers and other digital storage devices, as well as evidence secured through the rebuilt Ghostmarket site, officers identified Shakira Ricardo, a trusted member of the forum. Initially joining the site as a complete novice, over time Ricardo had progressed to become directly engaged in card fraud and computer malware activity.
Financial enquiries identified a payment made from Ricardo into her partner Worley’s bank account, incriminating her in the fraud.