In October 2013, a 24-year-old man from Yonkers stood before Judge Kiyo Matsumoto in a Brooklyn federal court, accused of being part of a global hacking conspiracy behind one of the most lucrative and high-tech bank robberies in history. He and his co-defendants, also county residents, had stolen close to $3 million in the New York City area in what was just the local arm of a $45 million heist that involved operatives in more than two dozen countries.
Do you understand what is going on in this proceeding and why you are here?
The conspiracy netted nearly eight times more loot than the notorious 1978 Lufthansa heist at JFK Airport (made famous by the movie Goodfellas), which, as the biggest US heist ever until that time, garnered a comparatively paltry $6 million for its perpetrators.
The young man was about to officially come clean about his involvement in the crime that had befuddled law-enforcement officials around the world.
Before hearing his testimony, Matsumoto asked the defendant a series of questions.
—“Have you recently been hospitalized or treated for any mental or emotional problems or any alcohol or narcotic addiction?” he began.
—“No,” the defendant responded.
—“Is your mind clear now?” the judge asked.
—“Yes,” said the defendant.
—“Do you understand what is going on in this proceeding and why you are here?”
—“Yes,” he replied.
Elvis Rodriguez and Alberto Lajud-Peña were friends who met at Roosevelt High School in Yonkers. Rodriguez was 15 when he moved to the US from the Dominican Republic with his siblings and single mother, Denise. He never knew his father, but his mother tried to teach her son the importance of hard work and responsibility. Some of her lessons paid off; after high school, Rodriguez worked two full-time jobs, one as a deliveryman for Domino’s and another as a bus driver.
Like Rodriguez, Lajud-Peña came from the Dominican Republic, but the similarities ended there—at least on paper. Whereas Rodriguez knew little about technology or computers, Lajud-Peña was a technology wizard, a “computer genius,” his lawyer would later say.
Lajud-Peña, authorities believe, served as the brains of the New York branch of the operation. Rodriguez was his manager, or recruiter, and was tasked with finding other trustworthy accomplices.
Before their involvement in the bank heist, neither man had a criminal record. It’s unclear what led them down the road to crime, or with whom they ultimately ended up working. At some point prior to December 2012, Lajud-Peña made a connection over the Internet with a group of hackers based somewhere in Eastern Europe. To this day, the publicly available details on the European branch of the operation remain murky. (When contacted, both a federal prosecutor assigned to the case and a spokesperson for the US Secret Service—which led the investigation—declined to provide any further details or comment on the case at all, citing the sensitivity of an ongoing investigation.)
Although its identity has not been disclosed and possibly is unknown, it is clear from court documents that the European hacking group was in charge of the operation and that it provided Lajud-Peña, Rodriguez, and their accomplices with the means to implement a crime so successful that it would generate international headlines and put the national spotlight on cyber-heists. The European connection also set in motion a chain of events that would forever alter the destinies of the two young men from Westchester. Within a few years, one would be in prison and the other would be dead.
Partners in Crime
It was December 2012, and Lajud-Peña’s team, the one Rodriguez had helped put together, was in place. It was a type of robbery known in the cyber underworld as an “unlimited operation” and the 13-man team (including Lajud-Peña and Rodriguez) from Yonkers was known as a “cashing crew” or “cashers.” They didn’t have ski masks or guns; instead, the robbers were armed with a less deadly but significantly more effective robbery tool in the digital age: data.
The hacker masterminds of the operation previously had penetrated the system of an Indian credit card processing company that handles Visa and MasterCard prepaid debit cards. As a result, they were able to increase the withdrawal limits on prepaid MasterCard debit accounts issued by the National Bank of Ras Al-Khaimah, also known as RAKBANK, which is in the United Arab Emirates.
Account numbers for the compromised RAKBANK accounts with increased balances were distributed to cashing crews in approximately 20 countries, including the Westchester crew, who encoded the data onto magnetic stripe cards such as gift cards and hotel key cards. In essence, they had created counterfeit ATM cards that served as modern-day keys to the vault of RAKBANK. The amount of cash they could take was limited only by the withdrawal limits on the ATM machines they used.
Between December 21 and December 22, 2012, the Westchester cashing crew fanned out across New York City and surrounding areas and went to work collecting loot. Rodriguez and Lajud-Peña made multiple ATM withdrawals, taking thousands of dollars in cash. Rodriguez made his withdrawals between an eight-hour shift at Domino’s and an eight-hour shift at his bus-driving job. He left his Domino’s hat on as he made these rounds, never suspecting it would serve as a beacon for investigators trying to identify him and his crew on ATM surveillance cameras.
All told, the Westchester crew gathered $400,000 during the operation. Over the same time period, the various cashing crews made more than 4,500 ATM withdrawals worldwide, netting a total of $5 million. It wasn’t a bad score, but it was just the beginning.
The Westchester “cashing crew” had created fake ATM cards enabling them to steal huge amounts of cash.
Most likely emboldened by the success of the first effort, the same team struck again about two months later and made an even larger haul. In February 2013, hackers infiltrated a credit card processing company based in the US that, like the Indian company, handled Visa and MasterCard prepaid debit cards. This allowed the hackers to secure 12 account numbers for cards issued by the Bank of Muscat in Oman and raise the withdrawal limits. Starting at 3 pm on February 19, the crews made about 36,000 transactions and withdrew about $40 million in just over 10 hours. In the New York City area, the Westchester cashing crew made at least 2,904 withdrawals, grabbing $2.4 million in cash.
During the robbery, the backpack of suspect Jose Familla Reyes could be seen getting ever fuller as it was stuffed with more and more cash. Reyes hit more than two dozen ATM machines and personally bagged more than $24,000.
Even the federal prosecutor seemed impressed with the sophistication of the caper, comparing it to the crime committed in the movie Ocean’s Eleven.
“The defendants and their co-conspirators participated in a massive 21st-century bank heist that reached across the Internet and stretched around the globe,” said then-US Attorney Loretta E. Lynch in a 2013 statement. Lynch’s involvement in the case helped raise her national profile and could have been a factor in President Obama’s decision to make her his first choice to succeed Eric Holder as US
attorney general (she was sworn into office on April 27, 2015).
What the members of the Westchester cashing crew did following the heist was not as smoothly executed. Despite the high-tech nature of the crime, it would end in a manner tragically reminiscent of the low-tech bank robberies of days gone by — with a bloody shootout.
The Darknet Rises
How did a group of young men from Westchester partner with a hacking group in Eastern Europe?
According to Zhixiong Chen, a cybersecurity professor who teaches at Mercy College’s Cybersecurity Education Center, this type of connection is not uncommon in crimes of this type. Chen says international hackers connect with people in other countries on black-market Internet forums that work like “an illegal drug market,” except information is sold instead of drugs. Passwords, bank-account numbers, Twitter login info, and other data obtained by hackers are made available to buyers in the equivalent of criminal craigslist ads.
Most of these forums operate in the Deep Web or “darknet,” the unmonitored underbelly of cyberspace where innocuous old, forgotten codes can be found alongside criminal websites cloaked from major search engines by skilled programmers. One popular black-market site, The Silk Road, made headlines for its illegal drug sales and was shut down in 2013. (Its founder was subsequently sentenced to life in prison.) But data often is more valuable than drugs on the darknet. A report released last year by the RAND Corporation’s National Security and Research Division shows the hacker market has become more profitable than the illegal drug trade in some ways.
Ads on black-market sites often offer the data necessary to create phony ATM cards like the ones used in the unlimited operation. Once that data is provided, “it’s not hard to make an ATM card,” Chen says. Unlike with the unlimited operation, usually there are strict limits placed on these cards and instead of withdrawing large sums of cash at one time, criminals will siphon off money slowly. “You draw like $10 or $20 a month,” Chen explains.
The Westchester cashing crew did not take the cautious approach. “This case is pretty extreme,” Chen says. “They were basically not very careful; they took large sums of money.”
That lack of caution cost the Westchester cashing crew dearly; grabbing so much cash so quickly was the modern-day equivalent of tripping a burglar alarm.
Though they helped to pull off an international caper, the Westchester crew’s brazen greed ultimately took them down.
Slipping Up—big time
Rather then take the money and run, members of the Westchester cashing crew took the money and spent it—and then took pictures of that spending, storing the incriminating images on their phones and even posting some of them on Facebook.
Rodriguez and another co-defendant, Emir Yasser Yeje, struck rap-star poses in a car with giant stacks of cash — approximately $40,000 — sitting between them.
Members of the crew flaunted Rolex watches, bought new cars, took trips to Miami, and went on lavish spending sprees. Unbeknownst to them, authorities were already honing in.
Alarmed by the large amount of cash that was being withdrawn, MasterCard notified the Secret Service shortly after the first robbery on December 22. When the crew struck again in February, investigators were able to compare faces caught on footage from both operations. When agents took a closer look at the suspects, the reports of big spending and photos of cash helped confirm the agents’ suspicions.
Arrests were made beginning in March 2013, and Rodriguez and Lajud-Peña separately tried to flee to their native Dominican Republic. Rodriguez was arrested with $2,000 in cash while trying to board a flight at JFK Airport in Queens. Lajud-Peña was more successful in his getaway, arriving in his native country around April 11.
Several lawyers for those arrested argued that the members of the Westchester crew were only low-level participants and that the real villains, those who orchestrated the crime, got away. “This was an enormous case, in that so much was stolen, and sophisticated to the highest order,” says Barry Gene Rhodes, Yeje’s lawyer. “The participants who were arrested, all of them, were just poor people in complete ignorance of the scale of the theft or how it was being accomplished. They conspired to commit these crimes but were selected for their ignorance and lack of sophistication.”
Patrick Brackley, the lawyer for both Rodriguez and Lajud-Peña (before the latter fled the country), says, “They never had anything to do with how it was done. They were given a piece of plastic with an unlimited amount on it and they would stand at a bank and empty the ATM box, like a victimless crime. Just taking money from a machine.”
Brackley also points out that his client’s level of sophistication was so limited that at one point when Rodriguez flew to Romania to give the organizers their share of the money, “he did not know where that place was, or where he was going.”
An unhappy ending
Lajud-Peña was free. While his friends were being nabbed left and right, he had escaped US authorities and appeared to have ridden off into the sunset. After arriving in the Dominican Republic, he split time between Santiago, where he was born, and San Francisco de Macorís, where his wife lived. He didn’t stop his flashy spending habits, paying $23,000 for a Toyota pickup truck days after his arrival. He seemed aware that his spending would draw notice and carried a pistol with him when he left his home.
According to multiple reports, his wife’s cousins realized Lajud-Peña had come into money and hatched a plan to rob him. On April 27, just a few weeks after his arrival in the country, he was playing dominos with his wife’s cousins when two hooded men entered the home. Lajud-Peña drew a .45-caliber Glock pistol but was shot five times and killed.
Back in the US, after being caught and imprisoned, Rodriguez admitted to his crime and fully cooperated with authorities, officially pleading guilty in October 2013. He willingly turned over $30,000 in cash he still had from the robbery, a move his lawyer says is unprecedented. “In 20 years of representing criminal defendants accused of such types of crimes, I’ve never seen that.”
During his sentencing in November 2014, the courtroom was filled with more than 20 of Rodriguez’s family members. Brackley briefly recounted the story of Rodriguez’s hardworking mother and talked about his otherwise clean record.
From the transcript, many in the court seemed moved by Brackley’s words and the support Rodriguez’s family showed him. Even as Prosecutor Hilary Jager urged a serious sentence, she acknowledged, “there is no doubt that Mr. Rodriguez is a hardworking individual who has an incredibly supportive network of family and friends” and he tried “to do the right thing after he was arrested.”
The judge sentenced Rodriguez to 34 months in prison (he had already served 20 months at the time of the sentencing), followed by three years of supervised release and the obligation, along with his co-defendants, to pay back the money taken in the New York portion of the robbery. During the sentencing, Judge Matsumoto said he believes Rodriguez was remorseful and “it appears he has a good head on his shoulders and a bright future.”
In court, Rodriguez vowed to reform. “This is definitely the biggest mistake I’ve made in my life,” he said. “Now, I have gotten closer to God, and that’s why I would ask to be given a second chance.”
For an incentive to keep that promise when he is released in less than a year, Elvis Rodriguez need only remember the way his friend Alberto Lajud-Peña’s life was extinguished in a hail of bullets. It was a gruesome ending to a Hollywood-style crime that ultimately proved far less glorious in real life than in the movies.