Bine ati venit in Ramnicu Valcea, originally uploaded by mirciagutau.
Intr-un articol recent din revista Wired, a aparut un articol despre Valceni. Iata reactiile cititorilor la acel articol:
Posted by: AliB | 02/1/11 | 1:12 pm |
You should do better than a diletant. Ramnicu Valcea is not a remote town in Romania, but almost close to the central part thereof and with a long history. Just translate with Google this page http://ro.wikipedia.org/wiki/R%C3%A2mnicu_V%C3%A2lcea Actually, you even contradict yourself, because you say that it’s 3 hours outside Bucharest (2 hours, to be more specific, I don’t know what car do you drive), so this cannot be remote. Anyway, you are unreasonably presenting the town as a ghetto in Romania just to make your point about some smart hackers (yes, smart! some big IT companies are even hiring them – just do a Google search) hackers. Come on!
Posted by: Andu | 02/1/11 | 1:35 pm |
I’m just curious how many hits from Romania this article will get considering it just went viral here.
Posted by: AliB | 02/1/11 | 1:50 pm |
well, the author is very proud of his article. My second comment was not posted, so this might mean something, right?
Posted by: AliB | 02/1/11 | 1:57 pm |
who are you to say Romania is a “relatively poor country”?? Relatively compared to what? To France, GB, Germany and other countries which made and make a fortune on our expense? Just read the history and you will find out! Maybe you’ve done yor homework just searching the Google at a glance and found out a 11-year old girl’s research on Romania. But this is an unauthorised opinion and you should quit categorizing the country.
Posted by: AliB | 02/1/11 | 2:03 pm |
Enjoy the money brought into your country by: car manufacturers from car purchases made by Romanians, banks from credits to Romanians, pharma companies from drugs sold to Romanians, food companies from food sold to Romanians much more expensive than in their own country, etc.! Guess on whose expense Western countries are building their economies!?
Posted by: Yacko | 02/1/11 | 3:31 pm |
So now the people who send out Nigerian scams of various sorts aren’t even Nigerian, just some pasty Eastern European? Oh, the humanity! What next?
Posted by: alin | 02/1/11 | 5:01 pm |
just wondering if you have visited any highschool in the city, or one of the two universities, to have all the details before presenting a situation like this. i mean, this kind of people exist all over the world, only that in your search for a story you were only interested in your part…it’s not fair to put an etiquette on a community based on the crap that those stupid guys are doing…yes, stupid, because there is nothing smart in what they are doing, there is no “mastermind” as you call it, just regular thiefs … i am sure that back in your own city you have similar “diseases”, but … only you can write stories…or make them stories (by the way, in the picture of the car dealer you should have taken also the dam behind you….it’s a lovely sight, and also in the opening picture if you pointed out the camera to the left the main road of the city would appear with the bridge over the river…but again…you had to make your story, right?)
Posted by: andrei_stefanuca | 02/1/11 | 6:58 pm |
I am curious about one thing. Did you enjoy the pussy brother? Because “worldclass mobsters” definitely keep their end of the bargain. Or is it imaginary pussy we’re talking about? The one that looks good in the eyes of a reader.
Posted by: andrei_stefanuca | 02/1/11 | 7:14 pm |
p.s. if you don’t reply, I’m going to assume that you have an extremely active imagination.
p.p.s. fix your the sign up form, there is no “state not applicable” option in the drop-down list. the closest option was “Armed Forces Europe” and I didn’t want to select that because it’s too negative. I chose connecticut because it just sounds good.
Posted by: Anca1 | 02/1/11 | 10:11 pm |
this article is the sort of trash i should expect. they say romanian, after english, is the second most spoken language at microsoft. we have amazing programmers, the strongest in europe, and certainly putting the combined “old europe” to shame. bill gates recognized this potential by building a microsoft university in bucharest. romanian programmers, working at comparatively low rates, are responsible for more excellent code than you will ever be aware.
AliB, for our part, let’s be realist: we both know that two hours outside of bucharest can become extremely rural. and as for relativity, we both know that romania is a poor country, compared to anything in the neighborhood except brethren in moldova. fair is fair, right?
and alin, let’s not pretend romania is not full of cybercrime. neither you nor i want these good people to know the last time you or i paid retail price for a dvd. ;)
Posted by: lordsith | 02/2/11 | 4:03 am |
So first of all makes me laugh the point of view of the so called reporter. So you say Romania is relatively poor country ?! Than how about your native India/Bangladesh etc ?! And a lot of WU offices ? Man are you coming really from some God forsaken place? A lot of WU doesnt necessarily mean crime/money laundering etc but rather that many from that city work abroad !!
Another item man you cant make difference between scamming and real hacking ! Really start posting smth about house&garden or so and dont waste our time anymore…….
And yes people are right saying you should first of all improve your geography before “writing articles”…..
Posted by: Sorix | 02/2/11 | 4:31 am |
I used to think that only Romanian journalists wrote articles based on shallow searches on Google and personal, 2 hours, experiences. I really hope you’re not getting paid for the work above…
Ramnicu Valcea is an important town in Romania, approx. 170 km from Bucharest,with a population of 107.726 inhabitants and a lot more than four policemen.
Through this article, you try to send the impression that Ramnicu Valcea is a small village, with small crooks, that due to internet theft “has grown in 1 year like others in 10″(Romanians will understand the saying).
I’m not saying that everything is honest work in R.M.,nor is it in New York or Los Angeles (“remote towns” in USA) but to write the kind of article you wrote means to not understand the full effects of your actions and to do a job just because you have to.
And, in case you wanted to know, R.M. is known for its hackers that broke into the NASA or CIA database…which are far more intelligent actions that what you describe in your article. And those hackers are now working in the USA.
Please, when you write your articles, try to really know what you’re talking about…Even if there would be actual true facts in your article, readers who know R.M. will not take your opinions seriously, because it starts with untrue info.
PS. After this article, I don’t think people should use your info on “decoding a spy’s messages”, cause the inconsistencies might get them killed.:))
Posted by: nicolae1 | 02/2/11 | 5:11 am |
@ Yacko , the author and the rest of US people frightened by the world around them
Before wondering : Oh , the humanity . what next ?
Think a little about the past of your nation . About the time when your ancestors took people from Africa and sell them like slaves in US. Aren’ you terrified about that ? Did you forget about that ?
So , who gives you the right to teach us a lesson
You have only one right : to remain silent.
Posted by: HighLevelRomanian | 02/2/11 | 6:21 am |
I am a Romanian PhD student and I lived outside of Romania at the moment. I have read your article and it seems interesting. I am not a journalist, but wanted for a long time to subscribe for it as my second major.
Your article might show the true facts, but presents in a very negative manner the whole town and country. I am not from Ramnicu Valcea myself, but things like this are happening everywhere around the world. I would have rather presented the whole country (or maybe just the area) in a nicer form, explaining about the struggles of a Romanian citizen, about EU and what happened to Romania since it’s part of it, etc, and only after get to the bad things that are happening there.
It’s very easy to criticize and judge facts and please understand that I am not defending the people that are hackering, but after someone reads your article he or she might get the wrong idea about the country and the city. I also do not approve half of the comments here, some of them are blaming you but we are humans and this is your opinion.
So, from a person that’s a Romanian, currently working on the Security of Wireless Networks and Protocols (opposite to a hacker), I would advice you to reconsider the story, to blame the ones that deserve this, but to protect and care for all the others in Romania that are living not only in that area, but in the whole country and are struggling to earn their money by working hard every time. Let’s try and have an objectively point of view about the things that are happening not only in Romania, but all around the world.
All the best and good luck with journalism.
Posted by: sandu | 02/2/11 | 6:57 am |
Westerners do not understand that Romania is no longer a developing country in terms of it technology. We are on the cutting edge now.
Look at Akamai “State of the Internet” last report(http://www.akamai.com/stateoftheinternet/) :
Romania is on 4th place on global avg connection speed and peak speed.
Constnata , Romania is the fastes city in Europe. West Europe and USA are far behind
This is true for the hole it sector. More and more very specialized it job are coming to Romania along with the big it companies because we are good at this.
This is why small crocks like those presented in the article are not robing liquor stores and gas stations at gunpoint(… like they do in USA).
Posted by: rhk | 02/2/11 | 9:02 am |
Let’s just say that a desperate man will find a way to lift the burden off his shoulders, mkay?
I’ll not even bother to list all the inconsistencies in your little story, but I’ll say this: you’re a naive zergling. So naive that you believed that Chita doesn’t speak English, even though you wrote that he was an arrow in UK for some time.
Stop writing about things you don’t understand.
Posted by: BAV | 02/2/11 | 9:33 am |
I left Ramnicu Valcea for college and I work in IT (in Bucharest), before internet was available in Ramnicu Valcea! There are a lot of young guys in RM that over the last 10 years cheat on internet. This is a fact! Even so, 2000 persons from 107.000 citizens of RM. Population decreased in last 20 years.
In 1999 was a total solar eclipse best viewed in the world from RM.
I congratulates the author for the article, even I don’t agree everything.
I’m proud that Wierd magazine published this article, because entire world can see that in Romania we know how to use computers, we do understand internet, money paths, police methods, e-commerce, human weaknesses.
Remember: only 2% from a small town can bring us celebrity.
P.S. Please observe that there is no reference to gypsies, homeless or baggers!
Posted by: AdrianK1 | 02/2/11 | 12:32 pm |
“Romanian Alps”?What is wrong with you?Do you even know where Romania is?
bla bla …no base
Posted by: Ampersand | 02/2/11 | 12:39 pm |
There’s nothing as obnoxious as self-righteous Romanians completely missing the point of an article that’s barely critical of their country. (and showcasing their sub-Google Translate mastery of English, to boot.)
This knee-jerk reaction of nitpicking irrelevant details (as if it’s essential that we know the precise time it takes to drive to Ramnicu Valcea from Bucharest) or posting pseudo-patriotic factoids (“they say romanian, after english, is the second most spoken language at microsoft.” , to borrow a joke.) serves only to clutter the discussion and stray from the point.
Please re-read the article. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Done? Is it about how Romania is a backward nation? Is this even the subtext of the article?
To be fair, the author does seem to slightly skew the image of this town in order to fit it into his narrative about “cybercrime central”, but that’s just Journalism 101 – you want to make the story a bit more interesting and exciting.
This article is about common crooks with a (slightly) uncommon m.o., and how they’ve grown into an impressively organized and coherent community in a location that just happens to be in your country (and mine, for that matter). So please, stop bickering about how every Westerner is out to disgrace Romania. Just stop.
Posted by: mimisorutz | 02/2/11 | 1:13 pm |
We all studied “informatics” in high school. We should all fight internet crime.
Posted by: Misha2m | 02/2/11 | 1:47 pm |
It’s not that smart to present the situation just from one point of view… the point of view of the majority. At least you could of tried to get out a percentage of the people that actually “hack” on the internet. And try to talk also about how other people live… at the beginning of the article i think i have read something like: chickens in front of their house…etc etc… well, as in my opinion, trying to grow chickens is a hard thing, because you need to feed them, to clean the place they sleep etc. etc… and it’s natural because you don’t have to eat “Stressed eggs” from the supermarkets/hipermarkets and you like to eat your own natural eggs. Why growing chickens in front of the house is so bad? Where else can you grow them? In an appartment?
For me, this article is a little bit revolting…. but among other written articles that have been written about us, romanians, this is just another little drop in the big picture. We’re all different and all it’s relative :) .
Posted by: andrei_stefanuca | 02/2/11 | 3:03 pm |
mister ampersand, I admit you are a bit naive as to what is currently happening in Romania. as is the author of this article. journalism itself is at a standstill in an age of open information. and what do you do when everybody has an opinion? are there any people of TRUE opinion left? because as we both know, opinion is quite relative. a smart debater would bring up education into account but education is a phenotype effect. it not only depends what you know, it also depends where you’ve learned it and in what environment you grew up with said piece of acquired information. therefore the issue of opinion is at a stalemate. true/rational opinion can only be argued with facts. numbers. the data which everybody so ambitiously wants to collect. if you want to tune that data with the audience, you would express it in narrative terms. like you did (sorry, the author) of this article did. so true UNIVERSAL opinion is transferred emotion based on holistically proven facts.
Can I please ask you to point out both the rational data and emotional translation of that data to form in the article above?
Thank you in advance,
Posted by: FredHarmonium | 02/2/11 | 5:17 pm |
Thank you for your article. I deal with victims of these criminals every day and it has been difficult for me to explain to the victims the international ties to their case — because I had very limited information. Hardworking, innocent citizens of Râmnicu Vâlcea, I hold no feelings of ill will toward you. But until your leaders stop this activity, I will continue to write the phrase “Romanian Scammer” to describe those who steal what is not theirs.
Posted by: BAV | 02/3/11 | 3:09 am |
Yes! Romania is in top countries as source of scamms! But is on far away from the top! Even Ghana or Italy scamms better than we do!
From this top I could say that really scammers are americans and british; we are just having a hobby.
Top Ten Countries By Count (Perpetrators)
1. United States 66.1%
2. United Kingdom 10.5%
3. Nigeria 7.5%
4. Canada 3.1%
5. China 1.6%
6. South Africa 0.7%
7. Ghana 0.6%
8. Spain 0.6%
9. Italy 0.5%
10. Romania 0.5%
Posted by: andrei_stefanuca | 02/3/11 | 8:37 am |
I was just cruising this Fraud Reporting website and there’s quite a funny thing written on the about page: “don’t assume the products or services in the ads have been cleared by CFR!”
I just wanted to mention that and and I have some questions:
1. Why is the data that you are writing about signed 2009, we are in 2011?
2. How can you accurately produce a HOLISTICALLY proven statistics for anything related to the whole internet unless you monitor everyone connected to it in real-time? The man behind the statistics probably took all the perpetrators, split them by IP address and then calculated the percentage of people of each nationality in particular. But then the statistics would be available only in regards to the total number of people that were caught. It is NOT HOLISTICALLY PROVEN. It can’t be holistically proven unless you have a way to also monitor the people that DON’T get caught at the same time. Everybody, as a matter of fact. Not to mention, finding a way to remove fake positives (web crawlers, bots, etc) although this condition is optional (wouldn’t serve a purpose for counting actual global internet related crime statistics) and would be related to the purity of human information in your study.
Your “2009 statistics” is only saying: look, we have these guys, let’s split them up by nationality. I repeat, It is NOT HOLISTICALLY PROVEN unless someone monitors the entire Internet in real time. 3) Does anybody do that now?
Other than that the website may be useful for spreading awareness to the public on the means by which fraud takes place on-line, I give you that. But getting back to the rankings, it’s obvious why the U.S is ranked first in cyber-crime considering how big the american porn industry is and what I just said above. The statistics splits the perpetrators caught in YOUR country by race, because it’s the only place where the US is allowed by law to actually catch them. Moreover 4) does this statistics count the address of the registered IP or the nationality in the caught user’s citizenship? If it’s the first, then it’s completely useless.
Until you find a way to answer the questions above, I do not believe that this statistic is more than a regional measurement falsely presented as facts and figures from a global point of view. wake up America, you are not alone in the world and you don’t own it either.
@ FredHarmonium: Please tell my why you find the need to apply labels and national stereotypes to online “scammers” considering that you have no valid regional statistics from Romania, or for any other country except your own? speaking under anonymity on this matter doesn’t make you believable. You could argue that you’re working against criminals and they could harm you if they knew your true identity – that always stands. Nobody wants to see people of the law getting hurt brother. Nevertheless, even this potential fear for your own life doesn’t justify the stereotype. Please think again. I personally believe that NO stereotypes are good.
And what exactly do you mean by “But until your leaders stop this activity”? True leaders should not even have the phrase “negative activity” in their bloody dictionary, attacking smaller countries for resources for example. Because all negative activity doesn’t do anything else then spread chaos across the world when the only sollution to be found for any crisis is in communication.
Let me tell you a secret: as far as a country is concerned, any soldier is a sword in the right hands. But as far as all the countries in the world are concerned, soldiers are nothing but the blood on those hands. All of our hands.
Posted by: andrei_stefanuca | 02/3/11 | 9:22 am |
Other than that, I earlier asked for some clarifications Mr. Bhattacharjee. I asked for them without hiding under some invented pseudo-name, I expect you to do the same when answering.
All due respect,
Posted by: FredHarmonium | 02/3/11 | 10:04 am |
BAV, your link misformed. I think it is http://www.consumerfraudreporting.org/internet_scam_statistics.htm
I can tell you that 95% of the scams for which I supply victim support originate in Romania.
Posted by: andrei_stefanuca | 02/3/11 | 10:41 am |
=)))) like anybody’s gonna believe that. I just academically nullified BAV’s opinion.
But guys, you’re missing the point, please try to think about the questions that I asked? Because they might lead to a solution that’s better for all involved parties in equal measure.
Posted by: Orsi | 02/4/11 | 2:21 pm |
Supporting Romanian’s contra arguments for the article here!
Thank you Andrei for the way you put the problem. The vast majority of people do not think sceptically, though I can’t make proof of this by pointing out statistics (I heard statistical data about it once on the radio but I don’t remember the exact percentages given, however I assume you won’t believe me just by telling this:)), but hopefully we won’t be arguing on what I said.
So the point is one could not make a living, neither build an impressive readership from writing unexciting true facts, it’s pretty obvious. Therefore the story needs to be pumped up and put in an untrue context even though maybe it’s telling the truth about some hackers. The problem, dear author, is that you put a whole community (in this case Râmnicu Vâlcea)in an unfavourable,offending situation and you make others, who are not familiar with realities in Romania, to believe that the world is dealing with a whole nation or, at least, a whole town of fierce and terrifying criminals. Come on!
Oo, and by the way, I’m not Romanian!
Posted by: sbartok | 02/4/11 | 7:02 pm |
C’mon guys, swindlers have been with us since earliest history. The alchemists, the men of god – - .. This is just a late twist. The illegal part is just the tip of the iceberg compared to the legal one. Many billions were made in the latest financial crisis only, with legal (protected) money laundering oops, I mean transferring.
These blokes in Romania are penny ante compared to the big brokerage guys.
Three hours outside Bucharest, Romanian National Road 7 begins a gentle ascent into the foothills of the Transylvanian Alps. Meadowlands give way to crumbling houses with chickens in the front yard, laundry flapping on clotheslines. But you know you’ve arrived in the town of Râmnicu Vâlcea when you see the Mercedes-Benz dealership.
It’s in the middle of a grassy field, shiny sedans behind gleaming glass walls. Right next door is another luxury car dealership selling a variety of other high-end European rides. It’s as if the sheer magic of wealth has shimmered the glass-and-steel buildings into being.
In fact, expensive cars choke the streets of Râmnicu Vâlcea’s bustling city center—top-of-the-line BMWs, Audis, and Mercedes driven by twenty- and thirtysomething men sporting gold chains and fidgeting at red lights. I ask my cab driver if these men all have high-paying jobs, and he laughs. Then he holds up his hands, palms down, and wiggles his fingers as if typing on a keyboard. “They steal money on the Internet,” he says.
Among law enforcement officials around the world, the city of 120,000 has a nickname: Hackerville. It’s something of a misnomer; the town is indeed full of online crooks, but only a small percentage of them are actual hackers. Most specialize in ecommerce scams and malware attacks on businesses. According to authorities, these schemes have brought tens of millions of dollars into the area over the past decade, fueling the development of new apartment buildings, nightclubs, and shopping centers. Râmnicu Vâlcea is a town whose business is cybercrime, and business is booming.
At a restaurant in a neighborhood of apartment buildings and gated bungalows, I meet Bogdan Stoica and Alexandru Frunza, two of just four local cops on the digital beat. Stoica, 32, is square-shouldered and stocky, with a mustache and prominent stubble. His expression rarely changes. Frunza, 29, is tall and clean shaven. He’s the funny one. “My English will improve after I have a few beers,” he says. We sit at a table on the edge of a big courtyard, piped-in Romanian pop music blaring.
Stoica and Frunza grew up in Râmnicu Vâlcea. “The only cars on the streets were those made by Dacia,” Stoica says, referring to the venerable Romanian carmaker. Access to information was limited, too: Weekday television consisted of two hours of state-run programming, mostly devoted to covering the dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu. “We had half an hour of cartoons on Sunday,” Stoica says.
In 1989, a revolution that began with anti-government riots ended with the execution of Ceauşescu and his wife, and the country began the switch to a market economy. By 1998, when Stoica finished high school and went off to the police academy in Bucharest, another revolution was beginning: the Internet. Râmnicu Vâlcea was better off than many towns in this relatively poor country—it had a decades-old chemical plant and a modest tourism industry. But many young men and women struggled to find work.
No one really knows how or why those kids started scamming people on the Internet. “If you find out, you let us know,” says Codruţ Olaru, head of Romania’s Directorate for Investigation on Organized Crime and Terrorism. Whatever the reason, online crime was widespread by 2002. Cybercafés offered cheap Internet access, and crooks in Râmnicu Vâlcea got busy posting fake ads on eBay and other auction sites to lure victims into remitting payments by wire transfer. Eventually, FBI agents in the US and Bucharest started to get interested.
In the early days, the perpetrators weren’t exactly geniuses. One of the first cases out of the region involved a team based in the neighboring town of Piteşti. One crook would post ads for cell phones; the other picked up the wired money for orders that would never ship. The two men had made a few hundred dollars from victims in the US, and the guy receiving the cash hadn’t even bothered to use a fake ID. “I found him sitting in an Internet café, chatting online,” says Costel Ion, a Piteşti cop who had been working the cybercrime beat. “He just confessed.”
But as in any business, the scammers innovated and adapted. One early advance was establishing fake escrow services: Victims would be asked to send payments to these supposedly trustworthy third parties, which had websites that made them look like legitimate companies. The scams got better over the years, too. To explain unbelievably low prices for used cars, for example, a crook would pose as a US soldier stationed abroad, with a vehicle in storage back home that he had to sell. (That tale also established a plausible US contact to receive the money, instead of someone in Romania.) In the early years, the thieves would simply ask for advance payment for the nonexistent vehicle. As word of the scam spread, the sellers began offering to send the cars for inspection—asking for no payment except “shipping.”
The con artists got even sneakier. “They learned to create scenarios,” says Michael Eubanks, an FBI agent in Bucharest. “We’ve seen email between criminals with instructions on how to respond to different questions.” The scammers started hiring English speakers to craft emails to US targets. Specialists emerged to occupy niches in the industry, designing fake websites or coordinating low-level confederates.
By 2005, Romania had become widely known as a haven for online fraud, and buyers became wary of sending money there. The swindlers adapted again, arranging for payments to be wired to other European countries, where accomplices picked up the cash. A new entry level evolved, people who’d act as couriers and money launderers for a cut of the take. These money mules were called arrows, and their existence elevated Râmnicu Vâlcea to a hub of international organized crime.
Many arrows were Romanians living in Western Europe and the US; some were youngsters from Râmnicu Vâlcea who had moved overseas expressly for the job. They’d go to wire transfer offices to collect remittances from victims, then turn around and wire that money—minus a commission—to Râmnicu Vâlcea or to other arrows in the network. The system served as a kind of firewall, making it much more difficult for law enforcement to track the masterminds.
Back home, the local police were starting to realize they needed people on the cybercrime beat full-time. Frunza, who’d studied informatics in high school before attending the police academy, was working drug cases in Bucharest when he decided to come home. He ended up joining Stoica on the hunt for online con artists. The two learned that suspects expect leniency from the police because their crimes target only foreigners. “The guys will often say, ‘I am not stealing from our countrymen,’” Frunza says. “But a crime is a crime. You have to pay for it.”
Nowadays, Stoica and Frunza occasionally find themselves investigating a childhood acquaintance or, conversely, running into known criminals in social situations. Frunza used to play on the same soccer team as a suspect who was under surveillance. Those connections have helped the two cops pose a formidable challenge to the industry.
A little after 11 pm, Stoica hushes our conversation and tells me to turn around and check out a table across the courtyard, where a small group of flashily dressed young men has just arrived with two blond women who seem barely out of their teens. The men are all under investigation. “It’s a small city,” Stoica says.
Photo: Nick Waplington
The sudden appearance of luxury car dealerships among the grass fields marks the entrance into Râmnicu Vâlcea.
Photo: Nick Waplington
Defining the town center of Râmnicu Vâlcea is a towering shopping mall that looks like a giant glass igloo. The streets are lined with gleaming storefronts—leather accessories, Italian fashions—serving a demand fueled by illegal income. Near the mall is a nightclub, now closed by police because its backers were shady. New construction grinds ahead on nearly every block. But what really stands out in Râmnicu Vâlcea are the money transfer offices. At least two dozen Western Union locations lie within a four-block area downtown, the company’s black-and-yellow signs proliferating like the Starbucks mermaid circa 2003.
Driving past a block of low-rise buildings with neatly trimmed hedges, Stoica notes a couple of apartments owned by people currently under investigation. “I don’t know if the people of Râmnicu Vâlcea are too smart or too stupid,” Stoica says grimly. “They talk a lot to each other. One guy learns the job from another. They ask their high school friends: ‘Hey, do you want to make some money? I want to use you as an arrow.’ Then the arrow learns to do the scams himself.”
It’s not so different from the forces that turn a neighborhood into, say, New York’s fashion district or the aerospace hub in southern California. “To the extent that some expertise is required, friends and family members of the original entrepreneurs are more likely to have access to those resources than would-be criminals in an isolated location,” says Michael Macy, a Cornell University sociologist who studies social networks. “There may also be local political resources that provide a degree of protection.”
Online thievery as a ticket to the good life spread from the early pioneers to scores of young men, infecting Râmnicu Vâlcea’s social fabric. The con artists were the ones with the nice cars and fancy clothes—the local kids made good. And just as in Silicon Valley, the clustering of operations in one place made it that much easier for more to get started. “There’s a high concentration of people offering the kinds of services you need to build a criminal scheme,” says Gary Dickson, an FBI agent who worked in Bucharest from 2005 to 2010. “If your specialty is auction frauds, you can find a money pick-up guy. If you’re a money pick-up guy, you can find a buyer for your services.”
Stoica and Frunza both complain that they’re fighting an unstoppable tide with limited resources. But they haven’t been entirely unsuccessful—in fact, the 2008 case that first revealed the anatomy of Râmnicu Vâlcea’s fraud networks stemmed from Stoica’s investigation of a young entrepreneur named Romeo Chita.
Stoica says Chita started out as an arrow in the UK, and he was good. He moved up the ranks and eventually hired a few friends to establish his own ring. The Romanian authorities began investigating him in 2006, when he started buying new cars every few months and going to clubs every night with no apparent source of legitimate income. Chita launched an Internet service provider called NetOne, which authorities believe he was using as a shelter for fraudulent activity. When cops wanted to identify his customers, Stoica says, Chita usually told them that NetOne didn’t keep records.
In January 2008, an informant gave Stoica the cell numbers of two men working for Chita. The police tapped the phones, and the next day one of the men sent Chita a text message with money transfer control numbers—unique numeric sequences required to pick up cash. Stoica and his team followed up with surveillance of Chita and his associates, which established what Stoica calls “the money circuit,” the route through which the funds flowed from victims in the US to Chita and others. Prosecutors now allege that the operation turned into something a little more sophisticated than the usual Râmnicu Vâlcea scam. For example, the case against them details a con known as spear phishing—sending email to US companies that appeared to be from the IRS, the Department of Justice, or some other agency. Through Trojan horses attached to these emails, Chita’s group could obtain the companies’ bank account numbers and passwords. Allegedly, they even hired people in Las Vegas—Stoica says some were homeless—to open fake corporate bank accounts and receive the money.
The same month that Stoica began pursuing Chita, a police officer stopped a car for speeding in the Westlake suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. About to write a ticket, the cop noticed some drug paraphernalia in the car and arrested the two men inside. A further search turned up eight cell phones, two computers, fake IDs, two dozen money transfer receipts, and $63,000 in cash. The pair turned out to be Romanian and eventually confessed to being arrows for an organization authorities traced back to Chita. They had spent most of January driving around the Midwest, picking up money from various Western Union and MoneyGram locations. Their confessions led to more wiretaps and surveillance in the US and Romania over the following months, uncovering a network of at least two dozen accomplices.
That summer, Romanian authorities and FBI agents conducted a series of raids on both sides of the Atlantic. Chita spent 14 months in custody before being granted a provisional release pending the completion of his trial, still pending. On an org chart filed in Stoica’s office, Chita’s photo remains at the top.
Class Café is an inviting coffee shop with a terrace that overlooks a quiet street. It’s nearly empty when I walk in—just the owner behind the counter and a young couple at a corner table.
Stoica discouraged me from attempting this meeting, but I wanted to know what an alleged kingpin looks like. I ask the owner if he knows where Chita is, and he offers to call him. After a brief phone conversation, he hangs up and tells me that Chita is in Bucharest. I remind him that Chita isn’t allowed to leave Râmnicu Vâlcea under the terms of his release, and the owner smiles. He spends a few more minutes on the phone, then hangs up again and asks me to sit. Chita is on his way.
I take a table on the terrace. During our tour of town, Stoica had pointed out Chita’s silver Mercedes on the road, so I ignore the green Jaguar that drives up until a man in Bermuda shorts, canvas shoes, and a white T-shirt climbs out, enters the café, and approaches my table. He introduces himself as Chita’s brother, Marian. He licks his lips nervously and fidgets with an iPhone. “Chita’s coming,” he says after lighting a cigarette and making some phone calls. “But he’s a little drunk.”
A few minutes later, Chita walks around the corner and ambles into the café. Boyish, dressed in shorts, a light-blue polo shirt, and flip-flops, he looks more like a college student than a criminal mastermind. Despite the reputation of Râmnicu Vâlcea’s underworld as relatively free of violence, he has brought along some muscle—a young man in dark glasses with a big tattoo on his arm. The bodyguard slams a beer bottle down on the table and flexes his hand, as if getting ready for a boxing match.
Chita shakes my hand dourly and sits down next to me, looking away. Two other men join us. The young couple from the corner comes over to greet Chita with fawning smiles and handshakes. They clearly recognize him, too. The café owner gets up and leaves. As he walks away, he looks at me gravely and says, “Good luck.”
Photo: Nick Waplington
Râmnicu Vâlcea has become the Silicon Valley of online thievery— a place where the clustering of operations makes boot-strapping a criminal start-up easier.
Photo: Nick Waplington
The tattooed man leans toward me ominously. “Were you sent by Barack Obama?” he asks. I say that I wasn’t, and everyone but me lights cigarettes. Marian, getting increasingly jumpy, demands to know my true agenda. Finally, I spell my name and tell him to search for my stories on his iPhone. He Googles me and shows the screen to his brother. Everybody relaxes a bit, and I silently give thanks for wireless broadband.
Marian asks the young couple to translate for Chita, and they agree to stay. Chita has them tell me to stand, then he pats me down, asking if I’m wearing a wire.
“What do you say to the charges against you?” I ask.
“They are fake,” Chita says, in English.
Marian adds, “It’s all bullshit.” For clarification.
Chita continues with his defense in Romanian, and the couple translates enthusiastically. “He doesn’t even know how to speak English, so it is impossible for him to post ads or exchange email with buyers,” the young woman says. “He doesn’t even have an email address,” she says. “How can he do fraud on the Internet?”
I press Chita about the wiretapped conversations, but his tattooed bodyguard interrupts loudly. “You go back to your hotel room, we send you some nice pussy,” he says, raising his hand for a high five that I feel obligated to meet. The two men beside him laugh, and Chita takes a final drag from his cigarette before rising from his chair. He’s in no mood to discuss the evidence. “This interview is over,” Marian says.
They saunter out of the café and onto the sidewalk, looking surprisingly banal for guys accused of organized cybercrime, enjoying the good life with little effort or risk. Officials have dismantled a few fraud rings in recent years—there were just 188 arrests in all of Romania in 2010—but scores remain in business.
I am left with the friendly couple that helped with the translating. The young man says he’s heard about Chita from his friends and has seen his name in the papers. He tells me he has just received a diploma in engineering from an institution in Bucharest and is now looking for a job here in Râmnicu Vâlcea, his hometown. “I haven’t found anything yet,” he says. Thinking about Marian’s Jag and Chita’s Mercedes, I wonder if he’ll consider a job as an arrow. It’s like Frunza told me at the restaurant: “You arrest two of them and 20 new ones take their place,” he said. “We are two police officers, and they are 2,000.”
Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this, like you wrote the
book in it or something. I think that you can do with some pics to drive the message home a little bit, but other than that,
this is wonderful blog. A fantastic read. I will certainly be back.
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