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Cybercrooks lure citizens into international crime

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To Karl, a 38-year-old former cabdriver hoping for a career in real estate sales, the help-wanted ad radiated hope.

The ad sought "correspondence managers" willing to receive parcels at home, then reship them overseas. The pay: $24 a package.

Karl applied at kflogistics.biz, a fraudulent Web site imitating a legitimate site.

He quickly received an e-mail notifying him he had landed the job, followed by instructions on how to take receipt of digital cameras and laptop computers, affix new labels and "reship" the items overseas. Easy enough.

Within weeks, he had sent off six packages, including digital cameras and computer parts, to various addresses in Russia. Little did Karl know he had become an unwitting recruit in a growing scheme to assist online criminals, the latest wrinkle in digital fraud that costs businesses hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Before long, Karl began to feel like Sydney Bristow from the TV show Alias, who wrangles her way through dealings with the Eastern European underworld. (Fearing possible retaliation, Karl asked that his real name not be used for this article.)

One day, a $4,358 electronic deposit appeared out of nowhere in Karl's online bank account, followed by e-mail instructions to keep a small amount as pay and wire the rest to Moscow. Then he began receiving account statements intended for online banking customers from across the USA. Someone had changed the billing addresses for stolen credit cards and bank account numbers to his residence in Grass Valley.

One of the letters was intended for 28-year-old Ryan Sesker of Des Moines, letting him know that his credit limit had been raised to $5,000 — a request he never made. Around the same time, a USA TODAY investigation found, someone accessed Sesker's online banking account and extracted $4,300.

"I thought I could work a few hours a day and make a couple hundred bucks, not get sucked into something out of Alias," Karl said later, sipping a cup of steamed milk in a sleepy cafe.

What Karl had become, in fact, was a "mule."

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