Data Thefts May Be Linked

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By Brian Krebs
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 20, 2005

A computer break-in at database giant LexisNexis Group may be linked to members of a group of young hackers involved in the theft of revealing photos and celebrity contact numbers from the cell phone of hotel heiress Paris Hilton, a senior federal law enforcement official said.

Federal investigators this week seized computers and other evidence from several individuals across the country as part of a nationwide investigation of the LexisNexis breach, in which the intruders gained access to 310,000 personal records.

Three people targeted in the inquiry confirmed that federal investigators had served warrants at their homes. Authorities are investigating whether the suspects used e-mail pretending to contain child pornography to fool people into downloading software capable of capturing passwords and other information needed to infiltrate LexisNexis's computers, the law enforcement official said.

To make off with Hilton's cell phone data, a hacker apparently posed as a T-Mobile supervisor to get another employee to reveal a password into the company's network, and then group members exploited a software flaw in the system.

Among those whose homes were searched was a minor who has been in contact with a washingtonpost.com reporter and who said he was directly involved in both incidents.

Another of the three, Zach Mann, 18, of Maple Grove, Minn., said FBI and Secret Service personnel came to his home Monday and removed personal computers and dozens of computer disks.

"They came looking for anything connected with LexisNexis," Mann said before deferring further comment to his attorney, who confirmed that a federal search warrant had been executed at his client's address.

"They busted down the door and ran at me with guns pointed in my face," said Jason Hawks, 23, of Winston-Salem, N.C., in a telephone interview. He said he called 911 because he "saw people surrounding the house, and I thought it was burglars at first."

Hawks said agents pulled him outside on the front lawn and asked him questions about the LexisNexis intrusions. He said agents showed him a short list of names and asked whether he had looked them up on the LexisNexis service. Hawks said he had.

"I gave them everything they wanted to know, but they still played the 'good cop, bad cop' game," Hawks said. "They wanted to know whether I'd sold any of the information I saw, and I told them I didn't do any of that, that someone handed me a link and log-in and I just got caught up in it."

The minor, whose identity is not being revealed because he is a juvenile crime suspect and because he communicated with a washingtonpost.com reporter on condition of anonymity, said federal officials appeared at his home this week and seized his computer. He said investigators "got everybody" involved in the digital break-in.

Paul Bresson, an FBI spokesman in Washington, said federal search warrants in the LexisNexis case were served Monday and Tuesday in California, Minnesota and North Carolina.


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