NEW YORK — A prolific foreign hacker behind cyberattacks that netted an estimated $55 million is facing sentencing by a U.S. judge in a conviction considered an unusual win for law enforcement officials who have identified hundreds of others like him but failed to put them in handcuffs.
Ercan Findikoglu, a Turkish national, had gone to great lengths to avoid capture by the U.S. Secret Service, both by obscuring his cyber fingerprints but also by avoiding the reach of American law, according to court papers. He advised one co-conspirator at one point to not “go to usa. U will get arrested,” the papers said.
It wasn’t until Findikoglu made an ill-advised trip to Germany in December 2013 that he was arrested at the request of U.S. authorities and, after losing a court challenge, eventually extradited.
“They know their safe havens and some are more challenging to get to,” said Robert Sica, who retired last year as the special agent in charge of the Secret Service’s New York field office. “Inevitably they make a mistake.”
In court papers, a lawyer for Findikoglu, 34, describes his client as an intelligent, self-educated man who as a youngster found refuge from an abusive father and sickly mother in cyber cafes, honed his skills for the Turkish military and then used his computer savvy for illicit personal gain.
“Mr. Findikoglu’s offence conduct is completely intertwined with his computer skills: he is a hacker,” wrote lawyer Christopher Madiou, noting his Russian wife, Alena Kovalenko, and their five-year-old son have twice been denied visas by U.S. immigration officials.
But according to prosecutors, Findikoglu masterminded three complex, global financial crimes by hacking into different credit card processors, eliminating the limits on prepaid cards then sending PIN information and access codes to teams of so-called “cashers” who within hours withdrew thousands of dollars in cash from automated teller machines.
In one December 2012 hack, they say, 5,000 cashers in 20 countries withdrew a total of $5 million ‚Äî including $400,000 in 700 transactions from 140 New York ATMs in just two-and-a-half-hours, according to court papers.
A percentage of the stolen cash was then kicked back to Findikoglu via wire transfers and deliveries to co-conspirators in Turkey, Romania and Ukraine, prosecutors charge.
The Secret Service investigates financial crimes committed by international hackers, many Russian-speaking. The FBI goes after state-sponsored hackers in counter-intelligence cases and has faced similar difficulties putting foreigners behind bars.
In 2014, U.S. authorities indicted five members of the Chinese military on hacking charges, though experts say it’s unlikely they’ll ever be extradited to the U.S.
Russian hacker Evgeniy Mikhailovich Bogachev is on the FBI’s most-wanted list, has a $3 million bounty on his head and is believed to be living freely in Russia.
“You work with other partner countries in the European Union so that should they travel there are arrest notices,” said Sica, the ex-Secret Service agent. “We have a footprint around the world.”