Hacker to Plead Guilty in Major Identity Theft Case

By Tamara Lush
Associated Press
Saturday, August 29, 2009

MIAMI, Aug. 28 -- A computer hacker accused of masterminding one of the largest cases of identity theft in U.S. history agreed Friday to plead guilty and serve up to 25 years in federal prison.

Albert Gonzalez of Miami was charged with conspiracy, wire fraud and aggravated identity theft in federal courts in New York and Boston. Court documents filed in federal court in Boston indicate that the 28-year-old agreed to plead guilty to 19 counts and to have the two cases combined in federal court in Massachusetts.

Additional charges against Gonzalez are pending in New Jersey, but they are not part of the plea deal.

The Miami man is accused of swiping the credit and debit card numbers for more than 170 million accounts. Officials said Gonzalez was the ringleader of a group that targeted large companies such as T.J. Maxx, Barnes & Noble, Sports Authority and OfficeMax, among others.

Gonzalez's Miami attorney, Rene Palomino Jr., declined to comment Friday. On Thursday, he said his client was "extremely remorseful as to what has happened."

Friday's plea deal on the New York and Massachusetts charges ensures that Gonzalez will be behind bars for 15 to 25 years. If convicted of all the charges in the plea agreement, he could have received a sentence of several hundred years.

Gonzalez must forfeit his computers, home, car and cash; agents seized $1.1 million buried in his parents' back yard. His girlfriend must give back a Tiffany ring he gave her, and his father and friends have to return Rolex watches he gave to them.

Palomino said Gonzalez was a self-taught computer genius whose interest in technology turned into an addiction. In 2003, authorities arrested Gonzalez but did not file charges, saying that he had become an informant and would help the Secret Service hunt other hackers.

In May 2008, however, federal authorities arrested Gonzalez while he and his girlfriend were staying at the luxurious National Hotel in Miami Beach. Agents seized $22,000 in cash, computer equipment and a Glock 9mm handgun.

Indictments in New York and Massachusetts said that Gonzalez and two foreign co-defendants used hacking techniques that involved "wardriving," or cruising through different areas with a laptop computer and looking for retailers' accessible wireless Internet signals.

Gonzalez was in the process of negotiating a plea agreement on those charges when the U.S. attorney's office in New Jersey brought additional charges against him. Prosecutors said he targeted customers of convenience store giant 7-Eleven and supermarket chain Hannaford Bros. He reportedly also targeted Heartland Payment Systems, a New Jersey-based card payment processor.

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