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Three hours outside Bucharest, Romanian National Road 7 slowly ascends up into the hills of the Transylvania Alps. There is a town of houses with chickens in the front yard and laundry drying on clotheslines. Welcome to Râmnicu Vâlcea, Romania.
In a middle of a field, shiny and expensive sedans are parked neatly behind glass walls. Next door is another luxury car dealership, showcasing a variety of high-end European automobiles. These cars are not only seen behind the glass, but along many streets of Râmnicu Vâlcea—top of the line BMWs, Audis and Mercedes. Sounds like all the citizens of this town have high-paying jobs. But think again.
Also known as “Hackerville,” Râmnicu Vâlcea only has one business: cybercrime, and business sure is thriving. The city of 120,000 is filled with online crooks, but only a small percentage of them are actual hackers. Most specialize in E-commerce scams and malware attacks on businesses.
According to authorities, these schemes have brought tens of thousands of dollars into the city over the past decade. The money contributes to development of new apartment buildings, nightclubs and shopping centers.
With only four local cops in Hackerville, it is near impossible to keep up with the cybercrime. Though they seem to be taking charge and following up on leads. One cop said that access to information is very limited: Weekday television consisted of two hours of state-run programming and only a half-hour of cartoons on Sunday.
No one understands how or why scamming began business but it was widespread by 2002. Cyber cafés offered cheap Internet access, and crooks started busying themselves by posting fake advertisments on eBay and other auction sites to lure victims into providing payments through wire transfers. Soon after, FBI agents in the U.S. and Bucharest started to get interested.
One of the first cases involved fake ads on cell phones and wire transfers for orders that would never ship. The men involved made a few hundred dollars from victims in the U.S. As business evolved, so did the different schemes. One early advance was establishing fake escrow services: Victims were asked to send payments to “trustworthy” third parties. The scammers also began to hire English speakers to target U.S. victims.
By 2005, Râmnicu Vâlcea was known world-wide as the place for online fraud, and buyers hesitated to send any money. The scammers adapted to this and arranged for the money to be sent to other European countries, only to be sent back to the city. As the FBI and other law enforcement find new ways to catch the crooks, the schemes become more complex.
Minus the illegal actions committed everyday, Râmnicu Vâlcea is a beautiful city. Defining the town center is a towering shopping mall that looks like a glass igloo. The streets are lined with different stores—leather accessories, Italian fashions, and luxury dealerships. There is new construction on every block, all fueled by cybercrime. The main attraction is the two dozen Western Union banks within a four-block area downtown.
Most of the crooks are Romanian, but that hasn’t stopped them from scamming all over the world. All they need are people who are good with computers, not afraid to break laws, and can easily manipulate their victims.