The United States is seeking to extradite a young Irish man accused of being part of a hacking group known as “The Community” involved in alleged financial fraud and identity theft.
The US authorities allege that nine members of the group conducted seven attacks resulting in the theft of crypto, or digital, currencies worth more than $2.4m (€2.1m).
A man aged 20 from Dublin, was arrested and brought before the High Court on Thursday on foot of an extradition warrant. During a brief appearance, he indicated he understood the charges. He was remanded in custody until May 22.
The US Attorney General for the Eastern State of Michigan said that their investigation had the “assistance of Irish law enforcement authorities”.
These included the Garda Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau and the Criminal Assets Bureau, with the Garda Extradition Unit involved in the extradition request.
The GDOCB and CAB conducted searches under Section 74 of the Criminal Justice (Mutual Assistance) Act 2008.
On Thursday, the US Attorney unsealed an indictment against nine people. It claimed the individuals, with an average age of 22, were “connected to a hacking group known to its members as 'The Community'”.
The nine accused were charged on 15 counts with “conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud and identity”.
In addition, three of them, former employees of mobile phone providers, were charged with wire fraud in relation to the alleged conspiracy.
It is alleged the group exploited security weaknesses of mobile phones to gain control of people's online accounts.
The Irishman was the only foreigner named in the indictment, the remaining eight having US addresses, located across eight different states, from California to New York.
The ages of the group ranged from 19 to 28.
Details of the indictment were revealed by US Attorney Matthew Schneider, along with acting special agent in charge Angie Salazar of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Detroit.
The Attorney General's Office said that, according to the indictment, the defendants are members of “The Community” and are alleged to have “participated in thefts of victims' identities in order to steal cryptocurrency via a method known as 'SIM Hijacking'.
It said cryptocurrencies, also known as virtual currencies or digital currencies, were online media of exchange, the most famous of these currencies is Bitcoin.
The indictment explains that “SIM Hijacking” or “SIM Swapping” is an identity theft technique that exploits a common cyber-security weakness – mobile phone numbers.
It alleges that this tactic enabled “The Community” to gain control of victims’ mobile phone number, resulting in the victims’ phone calls and short message service (SMS) messages being routed to devices controlled by “The Community”.
It claims that “SIM Hijacking” was often facilitated by bribing an employee of a mobile phone provider.
Other times, the indictment states that SIM Hijacking was accomplished by a member of “The Community” contacting a mobile phone provider’s customer service —posing as the victim — and requesting that the victim’s phone number be swapped to a SIM card (and thus a mobile device) controlled by “The Community”.
The indictment alleges that, once “The Community” had control of a victim’s phone number, the phone number was leveraged as a gateway to gain control of online accounts such as a victim’s email, cloud storage, and cryptocurrency exchange accounts.
The members of “The Community” charged in the indictment endeavored to gain control of victims’ cryptocurrency wallets or online cryptocurrency exchange accounts and steal victims’ funds. It is alleged in the indictment that the defendants executed seven attacks that resulted in the theft of cryptocurrency valued at approximately $2,416,352.
“Mobile phones today are not only a means of communication but also a means of identification,” stated United States Attorney Matthew Schneider.
“The allegations against these defendants are the result of a complex cryptocurrency and identity theft investigation led by Homeland Security Investigations, which spanned two continents,” said Salazar.
If convicted on the charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, each defendant faces a statutory maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. The charges of wire fraud each carry a statutory maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
The Attorney General's Office stressed that the defendants, in this case, are presumed innocent. Indictments and criminal complaints are merely charges and it is the government’s burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.