NEW YORK It was a huge bank heist, a 21st-century version in which the criminals never wore ski masks, threatened a teller or set foot in a vault.
Yet in two precision operations that involved operatives in more than two dozen countries acting in close coordination and with surgical precision, thieves stole $45 million from thousands of ATMs in a matter of hours.
In New York City alone, a team of eight people struck 2,904 machines over 10 hours on Feb. 19, withdrawing $2.4 million.
The operation included sophisticated computer experts operating in the shadowy world of Internet hacking, manipulating financial information with the stroke of a few keys, as well as common street criminals who used that information to loot the automated teller machines.
The first to be caught was a street crew operating in New York, their pictures captured as they traveled the city withdrawing money and stuffing backpacks with cash.
On Thursday, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn unsealed an indictment charging eight members of the New York crew including their suspected ringleader, who was found dead in the Dominican Republic on April 27 offering a glimpse into what authorities said was one of the most sophisticated and effective cybercrime attacks ever uncovered.
It was, prosecutors said, one of the largest heists in New York City history, rivaling the 1978 Lufthansa robbery, which inspired the movie "Goodfellas." Beyond the sheer amount of money involved, law enforcement officials said, the thefts underscored the vulnerability of financial institutions around the world to clever criminals working to stay a step ahead of the latest technologies designed to thwart them.
"In the place of guns and masks, this cybercrime organization used laptops and the Internet," said Loretta E. Lynch, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn. "Moving as swiftly as data over the Internet, the organization worked its way from the computer systems of international corporations to the streets of New York City, with the defendants fanning out across Manhattan to steal millions of dollars from hundreds of ATMs in a matter of hours."
The indictment outlined how the criminals were able to steal data from banks, relay that information to a far-flung network of "cashing crews," and have the money laundered in purchases of luxury items like Rolex watches and expensive cars.
In the first of two operations, hackers infiltrated the system of an unnamed Indian credit-card processing company that handles Visa and MasterCard prepaid debit cards. Such companies are attractive to cybercriminals because they are considered less secure than financial institutions, computer security experts say.
The hackers who are not named in the indictment proceeded to raise the withdrawal limits on prepaid MasterCard debit accounts issued by the National Bank of Ras Al-Khaimah, also known as RakBank, which is in United Arab Emirates.
By eliminating the withdrawal limits, "even a few compromised bank account numbers can result in tremendous financial loss to the victim financial institution," the indictment states. And by using prepaid cards, the thieves were able to take money without draining the bank accounts of individuals, which might have set off alarms more quickly.
With five account numbers in hand, the hackers distributed the information to individuals in 20 countries who then encoded the information on magnetic stripe cards.
On Dec. 21, the "cashing crews" made 4,500 ATM transactions worldwide, stealing $5 million, according to the indictment.
While the street crews were taking money out of bank machines, the computer experts were watching the financial transactions from afar, ensuring that they would not be shortchanged on their cut, according to court documents. MasterCard alerted the Secret Service to the activity soon after the transactions were completed, said a law enforcement official, who declined to be identified discussing a continuing investigation.
Robert D. Rodriguez, a special agent with the Secret Service for 22 years and now the chairman of Security Innovation Network, said that in some ways the crime was as old as money itself: bad guys trying to find weaknesses in a system and exploiting that weakness.
"The difference today is that the dynamics of the Internet and cyberspace are so fast that we have a hard time staying ahead of the adversary," he said. And because these crimes are global, he said, even when authorities figure out who is behind them they might not be able to arrest them or persuade another law enforcement agency to take action.
After pulling off the December theft, the organization grew more bold, and two months later they struck again this time nabbing $40 million.
On Feb. 19, "cashing crews" were in place at ATMs in two dozen countries waiting for word to spring into action.
This time, the hackers had infiltrated a credit card processing company based in the United States that also handles Visa and MasterCard prepaid debit cards. Prosecutors did not disclose the company's name.
After securing 12 account numbers for cards issued by the Bank of Muscat in Oman and raising the withdrawal limits, the cashing crews were set in motion. Starting at 3 p.m., the crews made 36,000 transactions and withdrew about $40 million from machines in the various countries in about 10 hours.
Surveillance photos of one suspect hitting various ATMs showed the man's backpack getting heavier and heavier, Lynch said, comparing the series of thefts to the caper at the center of the movie "Ocean's Eleven."
While the New York crew had a productive spree, the crews in Japan seem to have been the most successful, stealing around $10 million, probably because some banks in Japan allow withdrawals of as much as $10,000 from a single bank machine.
It was unclear to whom the hacked accounts belonged and who might ultimately be responsible for the losses.
The indictment suggests a far-reaching operation, but there are no details about the people responsible for conducting the hacking or who might be leading the global operation. Law enforcement agencies in more than a dozen countries, including Japan, Canada, Germany and Romania, have been involved in the investigation, prosecutors said.
Authorities said the leader of the New York cashing crew was Alberto Lajud-Pena, 23, who also went by the name Prime. His body was found in the Dominican Republic late last month.