AusCERT 2011: How the US Secret Service solved the TJX case

International and online co-operation led to closure of three year case

Peter Gannon of the US Secret Service.

Peter Gannon of the US Secret Service.

The US Secret Service has offered insights into its handling of the TJX cyber crime case, explaining that co-operation across national borders was vital to catching Albert Gonzalez.

Gonzalez was sentenced to 20 years' prison in March 2010 for participating in the electronic theft of tens of millions of bank and credit card numbers.

Peter Gannon of the US Secret Service spoke at the AusCERT security conference on the Gold Coast today, where he said the three year investigation into the hacking of TJX, Dave & Busters, BJ's Wholesale Club, OfficeMax, Boston Market, Barnes & Noble, and other retail outlets crossed many borders.

“Law enforcement is always a little bit behind the curb [when it comes to cyber security], but this case taught us some lessons,” he said. “In 2006 on Christmas Eve, TJX discovered they had a problem — they were having difficulties and were advised they may have been compromised.”

Gannon said that if it wasn’t for the assistance and co-operation of international police authorities and online retail outlets, charging and prosecuting Gonzalez, who pleaded guilty to 20 counts of conspiracy, computer fraud, wire fraud, access device fraud and aggravated identity theft, would have taken much longer.

“These cases are not unsolvable,” he said. “With partnerships around the world, these cases can come to a successful resolution.”

The capture of Maksym Yastremskiy, a Ukrainian man also charged with being a key figure in the TJX hack, came about thanks to information provided to the Secret Service by instant messaging company ICQ, Gannon said.

“He liked to log conversations with other hackers and use it as a get out of jail free card ,” Gannon said. “So when the Turkish police arrested him, they didn’t realise what a big fish he was.”

While some may view hackers as harmless individuals who don’t cause much harm, Gannon said the hackers prosecuted as part of the TJX case were hardened criminals.

“It may have started out as them being hackers when they were kids, but it definitely expanded into criminal activity,” he said. “A number of the hackers we’ve dealt with have guns and are into heavy drug use.”

IDG Communications is an official media partner for AusCERT 2011

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