January 03, 2011, 10:00 PM — The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is cracking down on a international criminal ring, based in Vietnam, that is thought to have stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from online merchants using hacking and identity theft.
Last month, agents from the DHS's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigations unit raided the home of two Vietnamese exchange students at Minnesota's Winona State University, seizing documents and computer equipment.
According to an affidavit filed in support of the search warrant in this case, the students, Tram Vo and Khoi Van, made more than $1.2 million selling software, videogames and Apple gift cards on eBay, and then shipping buyers products that they'd purchased with stolen credit card numbers.
The scam that Vo and Van are accused of has become a big problem for U.S. merchants, according to the affidavit, which was unsealed last week.
Here's how it works. Using stolen information the criminals set up eBay and PayPal accounts in other people's names and start selling products -- $400 Rosetta Stone software or iTunes gift cards, for example. When legitimate buyers purchase these products using PayPal, the scammers then order them direct from the manufacturer, using stolen credit card numbers. By the time the credit card user reports the fraud, the scammers have already moved their money from PayPal to another bank account. Then they move it offshore to accounts in Canada or Vietnam.
The online merchant is the big loser in the deal, but the consumers whose information was stolen also take a hit, as they have to untangle themselves from the fraudulent credit card transactions and fake eBay and PayPal accounts.
One victim, Susan Higginbotham, of Bemidji, Minnesota, got as many as eight letters a day from banks telling her she'd just signed up as a customer. She also got bills from eBay for the fraudulent transactions, according to the Minnesota Star Tribune, which first reported the investigation on Saturday.
In November, Louisiana authorities working with ICE arrested three students in connection with a similar scam.