LE MONDE

In Romania, A Quiet City Has Become The Global Hub For Hackers And Online Crooks

The city of Râmnicu Vâlcea in Romania, a.k.a. "Hackerville"
The city of Râmnicu Vâlcea in Romania, a.k.a. "Hackerville"
Mirel Bran

RAMNICU VALCEA – To the tourist eye, Râmnicu Vâlcea is a quiet, leafy city. Located at the bottom of the Carpathian mountain range, in central Romania, no one would guess this town’s secret, buried in its working-class neighborhood, Ostroveni.

You have to leave the boulevard that stretches across the city to end up in narrow streets surrounded by housing projects from the communist era, to start noticing that something’s amiss in this city of about 100,000 citizens.

Parked around those poorly constructed buildings erected during the Cold War dictatorship, there are expensive cars. Behind the wheel, youths between 20 and 30-years-old are proud of showing off a wealth that deeply contrasts with its surroundings. Welcome to the hackers’ lair!

Râmnicu Vâlcea and its Ostroveni neighborhood, is nicknamed “Hackerville.” It is the world capital for online theft. Internet shoppers from all over the world have been had by the Romanian hacking network: French, British, Germans, Italians and mostly Americans. According to the Romanian police, around 80% of their victims reside in the U.S. "Last year, one billion dollars was stolen in the U.S. by Romanian hackers," says American ambassador in Bucharest, Mark Gitenstein.

In Ostroveni, everyone knows what is happening, but omerta – the code of silence – is the norm. One of the hackers agreed to let us peek into his "business," as long as he remains anonymous. "It’s easier with the Americans," he says, "these guys buy their bread online, they’re used to do everything on the Internet." He claims to sometimes "bamboozle four or five users per week, leaving me, in the end, a few dozens or a few hundred thousand dollars richer."

"It’s a big world we live in and it’s full of idiots ready to buy anything on the Internet," he says. "We sell fictitious products, we clone websites and hack credit cards. In Europe, in order to get the cash in, we use "arrows" (money mules) – their only job is to withdraw the money previously sent to an account. They keep 30% of the loot and then send us the rest via Western Union." Given the many Western Union signs that have flourished in the center of Ramnicu Valcea, business seems to be blooming.

The Romanian hackers have understood that it is better for them to work in networks. This is their difference and their strength, compared to other hackers. The "arrows" are the most exposed – this is why they often have fake IDs. They know everything there is to know about the complex world of the Internet. "We used to pull all-nighters in front of our computer screens," recalls the hacker from Ostroveni. "We used to get 14-year-olds to help us. We even drafted the children of the orphanage to teach them stuff and make them work for us."

Fighting cyber crime

A group of FBI cyber-criminality specialists has set up shop in Bucharest, in order to – among other things – train 600 Romanian policemen to end the scourge. A special Internet theft unit was created and its 200 policemen have been dispatched all over the country. "We have made a lot of progress in the last few years. Romania is now working with Europol and the European Commission against cyber-crimes," explains Virgil Spiridon, head of Internet theft unit. They are making more and more arrests. In 2011, the Romanian unit filed about a thousand cases, arrested 500 people and passed 150 cases on to judges.

"SirVic," AKA Victor Faur knows the system – he used to be the head of one of Romania’s top hacking networks. As skilled as he is, SirVic got caught and condemned to six months in jail with a suspended sentence and a $240,000 fine. He had breached NASA’s servers to show the Americans how flawed their security systems were. "I warned them to fix it but I made the mistake of bragging about it on a website they were monitoring."

According to "Ice Man," the 26-year-old "black prince" of the Romanian hackers – also known as Robert Butyka – stealing on the net is very easy. He adds though, a little miffed, that hacking and stealing are not the same. He only likes the true challenges of the Internet.

"Yes, stealing on the Internet is easy," he says, "there are hundreds of websites where you can learn how to become a hacker." A few clicks later: "There you go, I found credit cards for sale with associated codes for Italy, France, the U.S., the UK and Spain." His screen shows classified ads where everything is for sale: credit cards and their codes, blank cards, lists of accounts from large email companies and many programs to access servers.

Ramnicu Valcea is the nerve center of cyber-criminality and its reach extends to several continents. The phenomenon started in 1996 and had a snowball effect on the town. However, Romania waited until 2003 – pressed by the U.S. – to pass a bill against cyber crimes.

From his balcony with a view on the pirates’ bay of Râmnicu Vâlcea, the hacker from Ostroveni has few doubts. "The brains, the big whales have Hackerville," he says with a grin on his face, "they have settled elsewhere, and are hiding in the U.S., the UK, France or Switzerland. They are very rich and stealthy ghosts. I don’t think they’ll ever get caught."

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Running of the Bulls in Tafalla, northern Spain

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здравейте!*

Welcome to Monday, where an apparent coup is underway in Sudan, Colombia's most-wanted drug lord gets caught, and Michael Jordan's rookie sneakers score an auction record. We also focus on a report that the Thai government is abusing the country's centuries-old law to protect the monarchy from criticism (lèse-majesté) to target pro-democracy activists and protesters.

[*Zdraveite - Bulgarian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Developing: Sudan leaders arrested amid military coup reports: Soldiers have arrested several members of Sudan's transitional government as well as civilian leaders, and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok has reportedly been put under house arrest, in what the information ministry called a military coup. Pro-democracy protesters have taken to the streets of the capital city Khartoum where there are reports of gunfire and clashes.

• Colombia's most wanted drug lord to be sent to U.S.: Colombia's most dangerous drug trafficker, known as Otoniel, was caught after a joint army, air force and police operation and faces extradition to the U.S. He led the country's largest criminal gang, and was on the U.S. most wanted list for years.

• Xi speech marks China's UN anniversary: China's President Xi Jinping marked the 50th anniversary of Beijing's entry into the United Nations with a speech calling for greater global cooperation, adding that issues like climate change, terrorism and cyber security needed multilateral solutions. Taiwan was not mentioned.

• German ISIS bride jailed for crimes against humanity: A German court has sentenced a German woman and former member of the Islamic State to 10 years in prison for letting a 5-year-old Yazidi enslaved girl die of thirst in Iraq. The case is one of the world's first trials to prosecute a war crime against the Yazidis.

• COVID update: The Beijing marathon scheduled next weekend has been postponed until further notice as China seeks to stamp out Delta variant outbreak and return to zero cases ahead of the Winter Olympics next February. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in Eastern Europe have surpassed the 20 million mark as the region fights against its worst outbreak since the pandemic started and vaccination efforts lag.

Goodbye, Gunther: U.S. actor James Michael Tyler, best known for his role as the barista Gunther on the TV show Friends, has died at 59 of prostate cancer.

• Sneakers record: A pair of Michael Jordan's white-and-red Nike shoes, which he wore during his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls in 1984, sold for $1.47 million — a new record price for sneakers at auction.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"The end of a boss," titles Colombian daily El Espectador, reporting on the arrest of drug lord Dairo Antonio Usuga, known as Otoniel, who had led Colombia's largest criminal gang and had been on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's most wanted list for years. He was captured in a raid and will be extradited to the U.S.


#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$57,789

A Georgia man is being prosecuted for wire fraud after spending most of his business's COVID relief loan to buy one Pokémon trading card for $57,789.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

How Thailand's "Lèse-Majesté" law is used to stifle all protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

👑 Thailand's Criminal Code "Lèse-Majesté" Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family. But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

🚨 The recent report "Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand," documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations." The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

💻 The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them. Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


📣 VERBATIM

"Children are going to die. People are going to starve."


— The United Nations warns that Afghanistan verges on a "total breakdown" as millions of Afghans, including children, could die of starvation unless urgent action is taken by the international community. The agency calls for the release of frozen assets to avoid economic and social collapse, despite concerns over the Taliban government. A recent report said that about 97% of Afghanistan's population may sink below the poverty line, and World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley warned that more than half of Afghanistan's population of 39 million were facing acute food insecurity and "marching to starvation" in comparison to 14 million two months ago.

🕌 🔍 IN OTHER NEWS

Dutch cities have been secretly probing mosques since 2013

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talked to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more Chicago Bulls or running of the bulls? Let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com info@worldcrunch.com!

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