Hackers' Excellent Adventures

How Underage Pranksters Ended Up in the Middle of an FBI Cybercrime Investigation

With his baby face and doughy body, 17-year-old Joshua Gilson does not look like your typical FBI quarry.

In fact, huddled over his Toshiba laptop, with rock music blaring from his bedroom stereo and Jerry Springer flickering on the TV, the Sheepshead Bay resident looks like any other teenager, albeit one experiencing maximum sensory overload, 1998-style.

But actually Gilson is part of a nationwide networkof teenage computer hackers who have stolen everything from Internet accounts to credit card numbers, a cybergang that has flourished despite a yearlong effort by the FBI to curb this online piracy, the Voice has learned. "I've stolen accounts and stuff like that. I didn't even think it was that big of a deal," Gilson said. "Everybody does it."

For months, federal investigators have been serving subpoenas and search warrants at the homes of these young hackers, carting away computers, disks, modems, and other items as parents watch in horror. Agents with the FBI's computer crimes squad have recently raided homes across the metropolitan area--from Brooklyn to the New Jersey suburbs--as part of a probe into wide-scale credit card fraud and other cybercrimes.

In several instances, agents visited the same residences more than once -- first in mid 1997 and then again earlier this year -- because some young hackers were undeterred by the federal probe. According to one court record, a hacker recently boasted to a friend that "nothing could be done to him because he was a minor."

One federal investigator acknowledged that while "it's tough to prosecute a juvenile," the FBI is "not always sure you're gonna find a teenager" at "the end of the string." The source added, "And if you do, it still doesn't mean the game is off, because if the damage is severe enough it is still a crime and it's still a problem."

Since the probe is ongoing--and every target appears to be underage -- investigators have tried to keep details of the case confidential, including whether any teenagers have been arrested on federal charges. But interviews with several subjects of the criminal inquiry and a confidential FBI document obtained by the Voice provide a detailed look at the current investigation.

The federal probe began last spring, when agents learned of the "massive deployment of a password-stealing program" on the Internet, according to the FBI document. The scheme targeted accounts on America Online (AOL), the nation's largest online service. AOL is a favorite nesting place for young hackers, who congregate in chat rooms with names like Dead End and Island 55. "Fifteen seems to be the preferred age for an AOL hacker," said one long-in-the-tooth 18-year-old hacker.

Rich D'Amato, an AOL spokesman, said the service does not comment on specific criminal investigations, but that the company has a "working relationship" with law enforcement agencies "in an effort to combat cybercrime." D'Amato added that AOL regularly warns its members about password- and credit-card-stealing programs, known online as "Trojan Horses."

With these stolen passwords, teenagers illegally accessed the accounts of thousands of unsuspecting AOL customers as well as employees of the online giant, sources said. In some instances, hackers were able to access an AOL user's credit information and order merchandise with the pilfered card number.

Along with password theft, many hackers developed or distributed a separate computer program that hijacked credit card numbers. Variations of that program, designed to look like an official communication from AOL, were e-mailed to thousands of account holders. When AOL customers opened the file, they would receive a message informing them of some type of billing discrepancy and that they needed to resubmit their credit card information. Though it appeared the information had been sent to AOL, carefully cloaked hackers were actually on the receiving end.

Armed with stolen credit card numbers, teenagers would use them to buy merchandise as well as open other Internet accounts. But a favorite prank of many hackers is to use the information for what is known as "carding."

It seems that every young hacker is a member of a loosely knit online "crew" and within those predominantly male groups everybody has an enemy or two, rivalries formed during chat room sessions filled with insults and put-downs. When one Southern hacker learned that a reporter had met with one of his New York rivals, the teenager had only one question: "Is he fat?" When told that his foe was, in fact, a bit overweight, the teenager whooped, "I knew it!"

Because of these geographic considerations, crew members rarely meet in person to settle their differences. Instead, hackers prefer to "card" their rivals by ordering expensive merchandise with a stolen credit card and having it delivered to their foe's home. Four teenagers told the Voice that they had been carded, though each denied ever pulling the prank himself.

Paul Lesiak, a 16-year-old known online as Pizza, said he has refused the delivery of a fax machine and dozens of roses sent to his New Jersey home. Bay Ridge's Alex Berger, 15, also said he turned away flowers and a fax, as well as a refrigerator. Ian Massey, 18, of Louisville, Kentucky, said after a beef with a New Jersey hacker, the teenager "carded a 14-inch dildo to my house." Joshua Gilson has seen flowers, a fax machine, a microwave oven, and a refrigerator arrive at his apartment door. Gilson, known as Ski, said the Panasonic fax--which he kept--came courtesy of an Illinois hacker with whom he was fighting. After the delivery, Gilson said his rival called him with the taunt, "Hey, Ski, did you like that fax machine?"

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