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Science

Romanian town dubbed 'Hackerville' by law enforcement

In a DW interview, a reporter tells of Ramnicu Valcea, at the heart of many Romanian online scams. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee describes how the town has benefited from illicit activity online.

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A small Romanian town has become a hub of online scams

Cyber crime, ranging from online scams, phishing and frauds, is on the rise, and is big business around the world. In fact, just last month, the Office of Cyber Security & Information Assurance in the Cabinet Office in the United Kingdom released a report saying that the overall cost to the British economy from cyber crime is 27 billion pounds (31 billion euros) per year.

This month's edition of Wired UK featured a story about the Romanian town of Ramnicu Valcea, which has become a hotbed of people who have made a lot of money through online scams. Deutsche Welle spoke with freelance reporter Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, who recently traveled there, to learn more.


Deutsche Welle: For those people in our audience who haven't read your story, can you summarize it?

Yudhijit Bhattacharjee: So this story I wrote is about a little town in Romania called Ramnicu Valcea, which is about three hours from Bucharest. And the story is about how this town has become a nerve center for online frauds of different kinds, but mostly auction frauds. And what's interesting about this town is that the local economy has gotten a boost over the past decade by proceeds that have come in from these online scams.

It turns out that just like in Silicon Valley, you've got startups that have made a lot of money using technology, or selling technology products, a lot of young pioneering scam artists in Ramnicu Valcea have made millions of dollars by perfecting these online scams that they've been doing for close to 10 years now.

How did you find this story? Are you an expert in random Romanian towns?

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Romania is one of the poorest member states in the European Union

Heh, no I'm not. But I heard about this town because I was interested in cybercrime, because as it's a growing problem around the world, and especially for the US, which is constantly under attack by all kinds of cybercriminals. As I was digging into this whole area of cybercrime, i learned about this town which is among some FBI agents and international law enforcement authorities, has earned the nickname, Hackerville.

So did you just come across it through law enforcement records?

The way I found the story was that I read something in an internal report in at the US Department of Justice that the US and Romania were working together.

Right, I remember seeing something a couple years ago saying that they were going to send some agents over there.

That's right, so they did. And actually they - the FBI and the US Secret Service - have both had agents posted not just in Romania but in several countries around the world, especially in countries in Eastern Europe, that have been paying more and more attention to cybercrime because the US is often the victim of these criminal attacks.

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The FBI and the US Secret Service have sent agents to Romania to combat cyber crime

When you say the US is the victim, you mean Amer icans.

Yes, I mean Americans who are shopping for things online or who are just gullible victims of online scams. And because Americans have a lot of disposible income, they are are often the target of these scams.

What does a typical scam look like?

A typical scam would involve an ad for a car, let's say, posted on Craigslist or on eBay and this would be an ad that says something like: ‘I'm a US soldier posted overseas. I'm in Germany now but I'm being posted to Afghanistan. And I would like to sell my car within the next week. If you would send me the money to ship the car to you, I can ship it to you and if you like the car, then you can pay me the actual price of the car.'

These ads are usually made very attractive with very very low prices and incredible offers like a Ferrari for $5,000 or a Mercedes for $2,000 and so on.

So that's how the scam starts. And when somebody who's in the market for a car comes across such an ad, that person might find it too good to be true, and yet they might not be able to resist the temptation to contact whoever has posted the ad.

Then once you enter into that conversation with the person who is selling the car - which really doesn't exist - you end up getting conned into sending the money via wire transfer or some other means and then lo and behold your money is gone. This is the most typical kind of scam that the people in Ramnicu Valcea are involved in.

Just to wrap things up, what's next? Are these kinds of scams still going? Does law enforcement have any chance of catching these guys?

Well they're certainly trying, but I think they still have a long way to go before they can round-up all these people. As I write in the story, for every 10 people that are caught, there's 200 more waiting in the wings. What you're going to see is that this trend will continue and most likely the scam artists will evolve their techniques and their tactics to outpace law enforcement authorities in Romania and in the US and elsewhere.

Interview: Cyrus Farivar
Editor: Anke Rasper

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