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Leading Figure in Major International Phishing Operation Sentenced

05/22/2012 -

A principal figure in a major international hacking ring that allegedly bilked banks out of more than $1 million was sentenced last week to five years in prison.

Nichole Michelle Merzi, 26, of Oceanside, California, was sentenced as part of Operation Phish Phry, an investigation conducted in the United States and Egypt that led to charges against 100 people, according to astatementfrom the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Merzi was found guilty last year of bank and wire fraud conspiracy, aggravated identity theft, computer fraud conspiracy, and money laundering conspiracy charges. She has been in custody since March 2011.

Merzi, along with her then-boyfriend Kenneth Lucas, was charged as a key defendant in an indictment returned in the fall of 2009 in a conspiracy that used fake e-mail messages to lure victims to bogus financial Web sites. Hackers used the financial information that was gleaned to access accounts at U.S. banks; money was then transferred into newly created accounts.

Lucas was sentenced last year for two federal offenses, one related to Operation Phish Phry and another from an indoor marijuana grow operation, for a total of 13 years in prison. Forty-seven people have been convicted in Los Angeles federal court as part of the operation.

The banks, which included Bank of American and Wells Fargo, reimbursed individual victims, according to the statement.

The investigation in the United States was conducted by the FBI, which received support from the Electronic Crimes Task Force in Los Angeles and the Social Security Administration’s Office of Special Investigations.

♦ Photo byFlickr/ ivanpw