Federal agents say the computer hacker called "Alpha Bits" was looking to sell stolen cellular phone account information when he ventured into "Celco 51," an Internet bulletin board that veteran cyber-crooks treated as an on-line black market.
"Celco 51" was known as the place to sell ill-gotten credit card numbers and cellular phone accounts, all from the comfort of your home computer, authorities allege.
But "Alpha Bits" and other computer hackers didn't know that the fencing operation was run by the U.S. Secret Service in what agents say might be the first on-line sting operation in this country's history.
"We created a thieves' den and invited them in," Secret Service Special Agent Peter A. Cavicchia II said Tuesday.
Last week, agents arrested Jeremy Golle Cushing, 22, a Huntington Beach resident who goes by the moniker "Alpha Bits," and five other people as part of "Operation Cybersnare." Cushing awaits extradition to New Jersey to face federal fraud charges.
Cavicchia said the effort is just the first new battlefront in the war on fraud. "They can't hide anymore. The same computers and technology they use to commit crime are now coming back to bite them."
The Secret Service's bulletin board was up and running only a few hours before the first prospective customer, a computer user calling himself "Black Knight," visited the electronic clearinghouse with hopes of peddling credit card account information, Cavicchia said.
Soon others, with monikers such as "Chillin" and "Barcode" also came in search of money, the veteran agent said. One of the others who allegedly sought out the "Celco 51" bulletin board to fence electronic data was "Alpha Bits," an alias that agents said belongs to Cushing.
Cushing was on probation when Secret Service agents from Los Angeles arrested him. Last year, he finished up a one-year jail stay after pleading guilty to 18 felony charges, including passing bad checks, possession of stolen goods and computer-related crimes.
The computer expert, a former Ocean View High School student, was a familiar face to Huntington Beach Police Officer Mike Reynolds, who said he has arrested Cushing numerous times.
"He is a very sophisticated young man," Reynolds said Tuesday night. "This kid is gonna be an economic crime expert for the rest of his life. The problem is he is involved in crimes that are very rarely investigated."
Cushing and five others were arrested in four states during a sweep last week by federal agents. Another 14 raids spread over eight states led to the confiscation of 31 computers, 65 illegally programmed phones and 14 "readers," devices used to illegally pluck cellular phone numbers and serial codes from cellular phone transmissions, authorities said. Those phone numbers and serial codes can be used by thieves to steal cellular phone air-time and charge it to unsuspecting consumers.
Cushing was charged with trafficking "cloned" cellular phones--the phones that have been reprogrammed with the stolen information--and possession of stolen access codes, Cavicchia said. If convicted, Cushing faces up to 15 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
Cushing's mother described him Monday as a former honors student who became consumed by the heady thrills of the hacking lifestyle. Vickie Cushing said witnessing her son's addiction to using the computer was "like watching the disintegration of a person."
The family declined further comment on the case Tuesday, but Vickie Cushing repeated her warning to parents who encourage their children's use of computers but don't monitor the nature or extent of that use. "It can be so, so destructive," she said.
Cavicchia said the public's view of hacking as "a harmless thing done for kicks by kids and geeks" seriously underplays a broad range of financial crimes that cost information and financial industries millions and can wreck the finances of unsuspecting consumers.
"A crook is a crook," he said. "This is not a victimless crime. If these guys get hold of your information, it wrecks your credit rating for years and leaves you with a huge mess to clean up. And they're gone, $5,000 or $10,000 ahead."
Jim Goode, the manager of fraud control at LA Cellular, said the cellular phone carriers in North America project a 1995 loss of more than $500 million because of fraud involving cloned phones and stolen access numbers. Goode said his team of investigators works closely with local and federal investigators and sees more than 200 arrests a month in the company's four-county service area.
The data thieves use "readers" to scan cellular transmissions for the signatures of the phones being used by consumers, Goode said. When the scanning devices lock onto the phone number and serial code of a particular phone, the thieves have what amounts to an electronic fingerprint of that phone's account information.
The thieves then use other equipment to reprogram a second phone with that stolen information, creating a "cloned" phone. All calls made on the second phone are then illegally billed to the account of the first phone, Goode said.
The use of personal identification numbers to "lock" account information has dissuaded some thieves, and a new tracking system that will be operating in coming months will put a further dent into the number of cloned phones.
"The new system will be able to distinguish a legitimate call from a call made on a counterfeit phone," Goode said. "It's just another tool to shut these guys down."
Cavicchia, who described himself as a member of the "pinball generation," said he is both impressed and intimidated by his field office's foray into high-tech crime-busting. Most exciting, he said, is that other newly devised tactics in the months and years to come promise to further complicate the lives of computer and cellular crooks. Hoping to keep the keyboard criminals off balance, he declined to say what form those new tactics might take.
"Macy's would never tell Gimbels, would they?"