Using Stephen's sniffer code, Albert and his crew could now hack their way into corporate networks and download debit- and credit-card numbers by the millions — along with user info, passwords and PIN numbers. Albert would then transfer the data onto servers that Patrick had set up in Latvia, Singapore, China and Ukraine, where associates Albert had recruited online would use the information to drain bank accounts and ATMs worldwide. By late 2005, the money being FedExed to Albert's drop box in Miami was arriving in stacks of up to $370,000. Operation Get Rich was paying off.
But Albert wasn't satisfied. Reaping the cash via ATMs, he realized, was too risky — after all, that's what had gotten him caught before. It would be safer and more profitable to simply sell the card numbers to other people and let them worry about getting the cash. So Albert enlisted the services of Maksym Yastremskiy, a 22-year-old Ukrainian cybercrime lord. ("The card 'dumps' are all run by Russians," says Patrick, "so they have the most clientele.") Yastremskiy arranged to have the payment data encoded onto bank cards, which were then sold at nightclubs all over the world for $300 a pop, of which Albert got half. To launder the money before wiring it to Miami, Albert used the offshore Internet-based payment systems WebMoney and E-gold. He had become the consummate businessman, even coining a name for his venture: Green Hat Enterprises. It was a huge, globe-spanning operation, with Albert at its epicenter. "He's just a genius at bringing people together," says Patrick.
Albert had a lot of players to keep tabs on, a feat made even more difficult by his insistence that they talk business only via encrypted IMs. He checked constantly on Yastremskiy — who, trotting across Eastern Europe, was seven hours ahead — asking for the latest sales figures and urging him to sell his cards "fast fast." Albert had two Russian hackers on the payroll as well, who did much of his online dirty work. In New York, there was a Barclays programmer who helped Albert launder as much as $800,000 but whose behavior was becoming so erratic that Stephen bought a drug-testing kit to threaten him with, at Albert's behest. Back in Miami, Albert was keeping a wary eye on a hacker employee who was starting to flash his newfound wealth a bit too conspicuously, spending close to six figures for a replica of a chain featured in the rap song "Diamonds on My Neck."
Business was booming. "I have a goal," Albert gleefully IM'd Yastremskiy. "I want to buy a yacht like Roman Abramovich" — one of the world's wealthiest men and owner of the world's largest private luxury boat. Albert started pulling in so much cash that he complained to Stephen that he had been forced to count $340,000 by hand because his money counter was broken from overuse. "Fucking BULLSHIT," he IM'd. "This is the 2nd money counter to break this year." Stephen responded with several pages worth of LOLs.
He and Albert talked every day, discussing everything — including Albert's double life as a government informant. At one point, Albert even brought Stephen down to the Secret Service's headquarters in Washington and introduced him to his handlers, who were interested in utilizing Stephen's technical skills. (Stephen declined their pitch.) In an IM, Albert reported that he had wowed federal agents with a presentation on how "malware" — malicious hacking programs — had evolved over the years.
"It's easy to impress these people," he boasted to Stephen. "And that's good."
As Albert's criminal empire grew, he began to indulge in the lifestyle of a minimogul — and he wanted his friends to share in all the debauched experience that his new wealth allowed. In 2005, Albert and his crew made their first trip to Winter Music Conference in South Beach, where they hit the Miami clubs. But the scene annoyed them: Bouncers with attitudes, waiting in line for drinks, sneaking into the bathroom to do drugs — it seemed beneath them. "We didn't want to rub up against the prickly shaved forearms of the guidos," recalls Stephen. "Even though there's great music, the crowd is garbage, people that look like fucking Ronnie and J-WOWW from Jersey Shore."
So when the friends headed back to South Beach the following year, it was with a different mind-set: They were finished partying with the masses. Now that they had money, they could control their own reality, and design it to their exacting standards. They booked a top-of-the-line suite at the Loews and stayed in all weekend, fortifying themselves with "magic milkshakes" — an insane concoction of cookies-and-cream Häagen-Dazs, skim milk, Ecstasy, mushrooms and LSD. Albert and his crew had long since left weed behind, finding it dull and unrewarding (though they kept a stash of top-quality bud for the girls who passed through their suite). These days, they were seeking the most intense drug experience possible, spinning the wheel of chemical roulette and hoping it landed them at some new, more advanced level of perception.
That summer, to celebrate his 25th birthday, Albert threw himself and Stephen a dual birthday bash in New York, at a cost of $75,000. He rented Sky Studios' penthouse duplex, with its soaring Manhattan view and rooftop pool, and he flew up his favorite pair of DJs, Oscar G and Ralph Falcon, from Miami. "The party was spectacular," recalls Sandra Martinetto, a friend of Stephen's who attended the party. "Everybody there was beautiful, glamorous, there was a good vibe — it was packed, like all of New York City was there." Some revelers drank champagne from flutes; others sipped water spiked with MDMA. Patrick Toey made the trip up from Virginia, making it the first night — after years of online friendship and criminal co-conspiracy — that he, Albert and Stephen were together in the same room. Stephen spent much of the party working the door, using his imposing height to make sure the right people got in and the wrong ones stayed out. Patrick, dehydrated from all the Ecstasy, couldn't figure out which water glasses were spiked and wound up guzzling them all, plunging himself into slack-jawed serotonin overload. Albert — always the practical, assured organizer — worked the room, having a blast. On the table, uneaten, sat a white birthday cake with the party's sponsor inscribed in green icing: "Green Hat Enterprises," their own private joke.
As Operation Get Rich continued, their tastes ratcheted upward. By summer 2007, when Albert spent a month in New York, he was dining on Kobe beef and $50-a-shot Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Late night, he and Stephen would head to a club — Cain, PM Lounge, Marquee, the Box — tripping on the psychedelic research chemical 2C-I and dropping $900 for a bottle-service table to draw the girls. When it came time to pay the tab, Albert would peel off a two-inch wad of cash and quote T.I.: "Rubber-band man/Wild as the Taliban." He took home a different girl any night he pleased.
Although Albert styled himself as a high-roller, at heart he remained a frugal immigrant's son. The whole time he was in New York, he crashed at Stephen's one-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village because he didn't want to waste money on a hotel. "Fuck all the flashy bullshit," he would tell Patrick. "Just getting by is enough when you know you have all that money stored somewhere." He flew coach, bought himself a modest one-bedroom condo in Miami and went to a free clinic when he needed to see a doctor — even though, as he told Stephen, it meant rubbing elbows in the waiting room "with people that look like Trick Daddy." The same guy who spent $75,000 on a single party would spend an hour bargain-shopping online for a $300 printer. "Don't waste your money on a plumber — I can do it," he assured Stephen, repairing his friend's toilet and doing a half-dozen other fix-it projects during his month-long stay.
On the surface, Albert seemed as in control as ever, making everything look effortless: always in motion but never rushed, always finding time to squeeze in his workouts to fine-tune his now-bulging muscles. But the stress of his double life was starting to get to him. As a criminal mastermind, he was keeping daily tabs on a growing constellation of international associates who were stealing data worth millions of dollars. At home, however, he maintained a conventional family life: helping his dad with his landscaping work, doting on his toddler nephew, wooing his on-and-off girlfriend, Jenny Bulas, and her circle of Miami-princess friends. He went to bed each night with his laptop beside him, plugged in but with the battery removed — "just in case," he said, fearing a police raid. Some nights he would be too wired to sleep, and Stephen would play Chopin's nocturnes on his upright piano to lull his friend into slumber. "I used to joke with him, 'If only you were a woman,'" recalls Stephen.
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