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EGYPT: 23 investigated for hacking American bank accounts

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A prosecutor in the city of Mansoura is investigating 23 suspects accused of laundering money and stealing more than $26 million from U.S. banks through Internet piracy.

The defendants were arrested recently in cooperation with FBI agents, who had been monitoring movements of the hackers and their American associates since 2007. FBI officials said that, so far, 33 out of 53 people charged in connection with the investigation, known as Operation Phish Phry, were arrested in the U.S.

All Egyptians accused come from the governorates of Dakahleya and Sharkeya by the Nile delta and are between the ages 21 and 27. The alleged ringleaders, all California residents, were identified by the FBI as Kenneth Joseph Lucas, 25, of Los Angeles; Nichole Michelle Merzi, 24, of Oceanside; and Jonathan Preston Clark, 25, whose residence was not given.

The suspects are accused of posing as legitimate bank representatives and sending e-mails to victims, seeking to "update" their records. After the victims sent their personal information, the suspects allegedly withdrew money from their bank accounts.

The scheme included the recruiting of "runners" to set up bank accounts where stolen money from Bank of America and Wells Fargo could be transferred and withdrawn. At least $1.5 million was withdrawn from victims' bank accounts, officials said. Some of that money was transferred to individuals operating in Egypt, they said.

Ongoing investigations in Egypt have already been marred by allegations of human rights violations, as one of the defendants' lawyers told newspapers that police officers forced his client to admit to the charges. Other lawyers complained that they are not allowed access to the evidence forwarded to authorities by the FBI.

-- Amro Hassan in Cairo

Photo credit: Associated Press

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