ID Theft Service Proprietor Gets 13 Years

A Vietnamese man who ran an online identity theft service that sold access to Social Security numbers and other personal information on more than 200 million Americans has been sentenced to 13 years in a U.S. prison.

Vietnamese national Hieu Minh Ngo was sentenced to 13 years in prison for running an identity theft service.

Vietnamese national Hieu Minh Ngo was sentenced to 13 years in prison for running an identity theft service.

Hieu Minh Ngo, 25, ran an ID theft service variously named and Ngo admitted hacking into or otherwise illegally gaining access to databases belonging to some of the world’s largest data brokers, including a Court Ventures, a subsidiary of the major consumer credit bureau Experian.

Ngo’s service sold access to “fullz,” the slang term for packages of consumer data that could be used to commit identity theft in victims’ names. The government says Ngo made nearly $2 million from his scheme.

The totality of damage caused by his more than 1,300 customers is unknown, but it is clear that Ngo’s service was quite popular among ID thieves involved in filing fraudulent tax refund requests with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS). According to the Justice Department, the IRS has confirmed that 13,673 U.S. citizens, whose stolen PII was sold on Ngo’s websites, have been victimized through the filing of $65 million in fraudulent individual income tax returns.

“From his home in Vietnam, Ngo used Internet marketplaces to offer for sale millions of stolen identities of U.S. citizens to more than a thousand cyber criminals scattered throughout the world,” said Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell, in a press release.  “Criminals buy and sell stolen identity information because they see it as a low-risk, high-reward proposition.  Identifying and prosecuting cybercriminals like Ngo is one of the ways we’re working to change that cost-benefit analysis.” allowed users search for specific individuals by name, city, and state. Each “credit” cost USD$1, and a successful hit on a Social Security number or date of birth cost 3 credits each. The more credits you bought, the cheaper the searches were per credit: Six credits cost $4.99; 35 credits cost $20.99, and $100.99 bought you 230 credits. Customers with special needs could avail themselves of the “reseller plan,” which promised 1,500 credits for $500.99, and 3,500 credits for $1000.99.

Lance Ealy, one of Ngo's customers, is now in prison for tax ID theft.

Lance Ealy, one of Ngo’s customers, is now in prison for tax ID theft.

Ngo was arrested in 2013, after he was lured to Guam with the offer of access to more consumer data by an undercover U.S. Secret Service agent. Ngo had been facing more than 24 years in federal prison, but his sentence was lightened because he cooperated with investigators to secure the arrest of at least a dozen of his U.S.-based customers. Among them was an Ohio man who led U.S. Marshals on a multi-state pursuit after his conviction on charges of filing phony tax refund requests with the IRS. Investigators close to the case say additional arrests of Ngo’s former customers are pending.

It remains unclear what, if any, consequences there may be going forward for Experian or its subsidiary, Court Ventures. Ngo gained access to the latter’s consumer database by posing as a private investigator based in the United States. In March 2012, Court Ventures was acquired by Experian, and for approximately ten months past that date, Ngo continued paying for his customers’ data searches via cash wire transfers from a bank in Singapore.

In December 2013, an executive from big-three credit reporting bureau Experian told Congress that the company was not aware of any consumers who had been harmed by an incident. Clearly, the facts unveiled in Ngo’s sentencing show otherwise.

I first wrote about Ngo’s service in November 2011. For more on the fallout from this investigation, see this series.

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