Seven people were arrested in the U.S., accused of operating the New York cell of what prosecutors said was a network that carried out thefts at ATMs in 27 countries from Canada to Russia. Law enforcement agencies from more than a dozen nations were involved in the investigation, U.S. prosecutors in New York said Thursday.
Here's how it worked:
Hackers got into bank databases, eliminated withdrawal limits on pre-paid debit cards and created access codes. Others loaded that data onto any plastic card with a magnetic stripe — an old hotel key card or an expired credit card worked fine as long as it carried the account data and correct access codes.
A network of operatives then fanned out to rapidly withdraw money in multiple cities, authorities said. The cells would take a cut of the money, then launder it through expensive purchases or ship it wholesale to the global ringleaders. Lynch didn't say where they were located.
It appears no individuals lost money. The thieves plundered funds held by the banks that back up prepaid credit cards, not individual or business accounts, Lynch said.
Ori Eisen, a cybercrime expert and founder of 41st Parameter, a fraud detection and prevention firm, said the $45 million heist was on the "high-end" of what can be done by cybercriminals who exploit banking systems connected to the Internet.
"Given the scale of the global credit card networks, it is almost impossible to detect every kind of attack," he said. "This attack is not the last one, and if the modus operandi proves to be successful crooks will exploit it time and again."
There were two separate attacks in this case, one in December that reaped $5 million worldwide and one in February that snared about $40 million in 10 hours with about 36,000 transactions. The scheme involved attacks on two banks, Rakbank in the United Arab Emirates and the Bank of Muscat in Oman, prosecutors said.
Such ATM fraud schemes are not uncommon, but the $45 million stolen in this one was at least double the amount involved in previously known cases, said Avivah Litan, an analyst who covers security issues for Gartner Inc.
Middle Eastern banks and payment processors are "a bit behind" on security and screening technologies that are supposed to prevent this kind of fraud, but it happens around the world, she said.
"It's a really easy way to turn digits into cash," Litan said.