NEW YORK — It was a huge bank heist — but a 21st-century version in which the robbers never wore ski masks, threatened a teller or set foot in the vault.
Yet, in two precision operations that involved operatives in more than two dozen countries acting in close coordination and with surgical precision, the organization was able to steal $45 million from thousands of ATMs in a matter of hours. In New York City alone, a team of eight people struck 2,904 machines over 10 hours on Feb. 19, withdrawing $2.4 million.
On Thursday, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn unsealed an indictment charging eight members of the New York crew — including their suspected ringleader who was found dead in the Dominican Republic on April 27 — offering a glimpse into what the authorities said was one of the most sophisticated and effective cybercrime attacks ever uncovered.
"In the place of guns and masks, this cybercrime organization used laptops and the Internet," said Loretta E. Lynch, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn. "Moving as swiftly as data over the Internet, the organization worked its way from the computer systems of international corporations to the streets of New York City, with the defendants fanning out across Manhattan to steal millions of dollars from hundreds of ATMs in a matter of hours."
The indictment outlined how they were able to steal data from banks, relay that information to a far-flung network of "cashing crews," and then launder the stolen money by buying high-end luxury items like Rolex watches and expensive cars.
In the first robbery, hackers were able to infiltrate the system of an unnamed Indian credit-card processing company that handles Visa and MasterCard prepaid debit cards.
The hackers — who are not named in the indictment — proceeded to raise the withdrawal limits on prepaid MasterCard debit accounts issued by the National Bank of Ras Al-Khaimah, also known as RAKBANK, which is in United Arab Emirates.
By eliminating the withdrawal limits, "even a few compromised bank-account numbers can result in tremendous financial loss to the victim financial institution," the indictment says.
With five account numbers in hand, the hackers distributed the information to individuals in 20 countries who then encoded the information on magnetic stripe cards.
On Dec. 21, the cashing crews made 4,500 ATM transactions worldwide, stealing $5 million, according to the indictment.
But that robbery was just a prelude for what prosecutors said was a more brazen crime that took place two months later. On Feb. 19, cashing crews stood at the ready at ATMs across Manhattan and in two dozen other countries waiting for word to spring into action.
This time, the hackers infiltrated an credit-card processing company based in the United States that also handles Visa and MasterCard prepaid debit cards. The company's name was not revealed in the indictment.
After securing 12 account numbers for cards issued by the Bank of Muscat in Oman and raising the withdrawal limits, the cashing crews were set in motion. Starting at 3 p.m., the crews made 36,000 transactions and withdrew about $40 million from machines in the various countries in about 10 hours.
While the indictment suggests a far-reaching operation, there are no details about the people responsible for conducting the computer hacking or who might be leading the global operation. Law enforcement agencies in more than a dozen countries have been involved in the investigation, prosecutors said.