The two Russians arrested in what prosecutors call the largest online fraud case brought in the United States were caught through a combination of high-tech tools, dogged detective work and sheer luck.
The propensity of the wealthy young Russians to travel provided authorities with their big opportunity to collar them in the Netherlands last year.
The alleged moneyman, Dmitriy Smilianets, 29, has been extradited to the United States to face the indictment, unsealed on Thursday in federal court in Newark, New Jersey, while one of the most-sought alleged hackers on the planet, Vladimir Drinkman, 32, is still fighting his move from the Netherlands.
Three other suspects remain at large, and prosecutors took the unusual step of naming them in what law enforcement sources said was a slap at uncooperative Russian authorities.
People working on the case said they believe Drinkman is one of the key conspirators in a credit card fraud case involving Miami's Albert Gonzalez. Gonzalez was arrested in 2008 and is now serving a 20-year sentence for crimes including stealing 130 million credit cards from Heartland Payments Systems.
Drinkman and one of the men still free in Russia, Alexandr Kalinin, 26, of St. Petersburg, were identified only as Hacker 1 and Hacker 2 in the main indictment of Gonzalez, when the U.S. Secret Service did not know their names.
Both were publicly identified for the first time on Thursday, and the indictment just unsealed said they were prodigious hackers, breaking into everything from banks and conglomerates to retailers.
Though it took years to get those two names, people familiar with the case said, Smilianets was easier to trace. That was in part because his alleged role was to sell the massive hoards of credit cards, which brought him into contact with more people, and in part because he kept a high profile in Russia and on networking sites.
ELECTRONIC GAMING TEAM
Smilianets was most widely known as the founder of a championship electronic gaming team called Moscow 5, which traveled the world for competitions. Online, his handles included Dima Brave and Dima Bold.
"He was well known in certain circles," Smilianets' attorney, Bruce Provda, told Reuters. Provda said he intended to fight the indictment "vigorously" and was looking into the circumstances of his extradition.
Agents got information that Smilianets was traveling to Europe last year and that he would travel with a friend on the trip. When the name of his companion emerged as Drinkman, who had been one of several suspected Gonzalez collaborators, the agents reinvestigated the name and concluded that he was one of the two hackers they had been chasing.
"Here's the world's biggest hacker," a person familiar with the case said. "We got lucky."
Drinkman posted pictures of his trip, dropped other clues and left his phone on, transmitting location information and allowing agents to make an educated guess about what hotel the men were staying in.
They called the hotel and were told those guests were sleeping. The next morning, as they prepared to board a tour bus, Dutch detectives confronted and arrested them.
Drinkman's attorney did not return emails seeking comment late Thursday. The Secret Service referred questions to prosecutors.
Announcing the name of Kalinin and other suspects in Russia is unusual and a sign that U.S. officials were dissatisfied with cooperation from law enforcement in that country.
Relations between the two countries on hacking cases have been poor for most of the past decade and a half, two law enforcement sources said. Neither was authorized to discuss the matter in public.
"If the Russians aren't going to cooperate with us, fine, we're going to let everyone know," one of them said.
In addition to signaling displeasure with officials in Moscow, the arrest of those traveling and the warning to those still at large send a message that major Russian criminals should not relax, and that could serve as a deterrent to others, he said.