A principal figure in the domestic arm of an international “phishing” operation that used spam e-mails and bogus websites to collect personal information used to defraud American banks was sentenced to five years in federal prison.
Nichole Michelle Merzi, 26, of Oceanside, was sentenced in the fraud case by
Senior United States District Judge Terry J. Hatter, Jr.
After a six-week trial last year, Merzi was found guilty of bank and wire
fraud conspiracy, aggravated identity theft, computer fraud conspiracy, and
money laundering conspiracy charges.
Along with her then-boyfriend—Kenneth Joseph Lucas, II—Merzi was a lead
defendant named in an indictment returned in the fall of 2009 as part of
Operation Phish Phry, a multinational investigation conducted in the United
States and Egypt that led to charges against 100 individuals—the largest number
of defendants ever charged in a cybercrime case. As a result of Operation Phish
Phry, 47 people have been convicted in federal court in Los Angeles. Lucas was
sentenced in 2011 in two federal cases—one stemming from the phishing scheme and
one from a indoor marijuana grow operation that he constructed—to a total of 13
years in federal prison (see:
Operation Phish Phry revealed how Egyptian hackers obtained bank account
numbers and related personal identification information from bank customers
through phishing—a technique that involves sending e-mail messages that appear
to be official correspondence from banks or credit card vendors. Bank customers
who received the spam e-mails were directed to phony websites purporting to be
linked to financial institutions, where the customers were asked to enter their
account numbers, passwords, and other personal identification information.
Because the websites appeared to be legitimate—complete with bank logos and
legal disclaimers—the victims did not realize that the websites were not related
to legitimate financial institutions.
Armed with the bank account information, members of the conspiracy hacked
into accounts at two banks. Once they accessed the accounts, the individuals in
Egypt coordinated transfers of funds from the compromised accounts to newly
created fraudulent accounts and other accounts used as part of the scheme.
“Records at trial show that, from February 2008 through September 2008,
defendant [Merzi] opened numerous BOA [Bank of America] accounts in her name at
a variety of branches, and the amount of unlawful ‘phishing’ transfers into
those accounts alone was $14,000,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum
filed with the court. From October 2008 to early 2009, Merzi and Lucas also had
the individuals in Egypt make unlawful transfers from phished accounts to other
fraudulent accounts opened in Southern California and elsewhere.
The United States part of the ring was overseen by Lucas, who directed
associates to recruit “drops” to set up and use bank accounts where stolen funds
could be held. A portion of the illegally obtained funds were transferred via
wire services to the Egyptian co-conspirators. When Lucas was sentenced, a
federal judge determined the total amount of intended loss in the case was more
than $1 million.
“The harm done by [Merzi]’s activities is undisputed,” according to the
goverment’s sentencing memo. “Although BOA and Wells Fargo reimbursed the
individual victims whose accounts were compromised, it is undeniable that the
scheme affected a large number of victims,” given that the illegal phishing
transfers “occurred in amounts around $1,000 at a time.”
Marzi has been in custody since she was found guilty at trial in March
The investigation in the United States was conducted by the Federal Bureau of
Investigation, which received support from the Electronic Crimes Task Force in
Los Angeles and the Social Security Administration’s Office of Special
As an American, I have witnessed many events in our nation's history. Some of them great like placing a man on the moon. Some of them were dark and shameful events. No matter what happened, it is the people that make this nation great. Each looking to the future with optimism and looking to improve this nation for all. The United States is a great and wonderful nation and her people are her best asset. As Americans, we need to stand together and let our voices be heard.
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
SoCal Manager of International Computer Hacking Ring Sentenced to Five Years in Federal Prison for Defrauding Banks
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