US charges 11 suspects in massive credit card fraud

US authorities have cracked what is believed to be the largest federal hacking and identity theft case ever, involving the theft and sale of more than 41 million credit and debit card numbers, an Associated Press report said.

Eleven people, including a US Secret Service informant, have been charged in connection with data breaches at nine major retailers, the US Justice Department said.

Three of those charged are US citizens while the others are from places such as Estonia, Ukraine, Belarus and China.

The indictment returned by a federal grand jury in Boston alleges that the suspects hacked into the wireless computer networks of retailers including TJX, BJ's Wholesale Club, OfficeMax, Boston Market, Barnes & Noble, Sports Authority, Forever 21 and DSW and set up programs that captured card numbers, passwords and account information.

'They used sophisticated computer hacking techniques that would allow them to breach security systems and install programs that gathered enormous quantities of personal financial data, which they then allegedly either sold to others or used themselves,' Attorney General Michael Mukasey said, quoted by the Associated Press report. 'And in total, they caused widespread losses by banks, retailers, and consumers.'

Mukasey called the total dollar amount of the alleged theft 'impossible to quantify at this point.' US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan said that while most of the victims were in the US, officials still haven't identified all the people who had a card number stolen.

Sullivan said the alleged thieves weren't computer geniuses, just opportunists who used a technique called 'wardriving,' which involved cruising through different areas with a laptop and looking for accessible wireless internet signals.

Once they located a vulnerable network, they installed so-called 'sniffer programs' that captured credit and debit card numbers as they moved through a retailer's processing networks.

The information was stored on two servers in Ukraine and Latvia _ one with more than 25 million credit and debit card numbers and another with more than 16 million numbers, Sullivan said.