On top of everything, Albert was still working as a federal informant, drawing what he told Stephen was an annual salary of $75,000. (When friends back home asked what he did for a living, he would say vaguely that it involved something computer-related for "the government.") He gave lectures to federal agents on cybercrime and had Stephen and Patrick write code that his handlers could use in their undercover operations. "Me and Albert talked all the time about how fucking crazy it was that he was able to do all this while he was working for the Secret Service," recalls Patrick. "We'd be laughing about it. But I don't know how he dealt with all the stress, living these separate lives."
His double life was almost blown when another informant told the feds that Albert was using the screen name "k1ngchili" to commit cybercrimes. To disprove the charge, Albert paid a ringer to log in as "k1ngchili" whenever he showed up at Secret Service headquarters. Working as an informant was crucial to his criminal enterprise: Prosecutors later admitted that Albert used government intel to tip off his friends when they popped up on the FBI's radar. Patrick says Albert once warned him to stop selling stolen data on a certain Internet forum, since it was in the cross hairs of an investigation that was about to end in arrests.
It was a lot to juggle — and as Albert's crime operation grew, so did everyone's anxiety. In 2007, when Stephen, Albert and Patrick met up in South Beach for Winter Music Conference, the tension hit a new high. Patrick spent the weekend in agony, curled up on a rollaway cot with an ulcer. At one point, Stephen, in a drug-fueled frenzy, began freaking out: He had recently discovered that he had been the victim of credit-card fraud; someone in China had taken out a $4,000 cash advance on his American Express card.
"That fucking Chinaman!" Stephen shouted, standing on the coffee table in bare feet and shorts, balling his fists to the sky. "I am going to hunt him down to the end of the Earth! I will take a sword and drive it through his spine!" Albert and Patrick laughed hysterically as the rant went on and on. Then Stephen suddenly turned to Albert.
"If I found out it was you—" Stephen growled. He thought he saw a shadow of concern cross Albert's face. "Seriously, dude," Stephen said. "I want to know if you had anything to do with this."
Patrick froze, but Albert was as cool as ever. "Hold on a second," he told Stephen, pulling out his laptop. "What's your card number?" Stephen flicked his wallet at Albert and left the room to snort another line. When he returned, Albert and Patrick were all smiles.
"You found it?" Stephen asked.
"Surprisingly enough, I did not have your card," Albert said pleasantly. "I searched everything, and it wasn't in there."
"OK, we're cool." Stephen took a deep breath. "It's only me and the Chinaman now." And just like that, everything was good again.
Patrick looked up yearningly at the dropper bottle atop the fridge. Its label advertised a breath freshener, but Patrick knew it was full of liquid LSD. Unfortunately, he had tons of work to do for Albert — he needed to focus. With a sigh of regret, he turned back to his laptop.
By the fall of 2007, Patrick was living in Miami, staying in Albert's condo. Back in Virginia, he'd been living with his mother and running low on money, as always — prosecutors would later say that despite his essential role as Albert's "trusted subordinate," Patrick made only $80,000 from Operation Get Rich. "I thought going to Miami would be kind of fun," he recalls. A few months before, he had driven down in his Acura Integra — the first car he'd ever owned, proudly bought with his criminal proceeds — only to discover that Albert's condo was no swinging bachelor pad but a sorry-looking dump with no blinds on the windows, no sheets on the bed, and little furniture other than a cheap orange couch and a tiny TV. It was located in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood of recent immigrants; within days, someone had stolen Patrick's car. He was stranded, didn't speak the language — and all Albert did was steadily prod him via IM to make sure he was on top of his workload.
Patrick's job was to probe corporate networks for vulnerabilities to a malware attack known as a "sequel injection," which overwhelms the victim's system with meaningless commands until the system gives up and defaults to using the malicious code. As he sat in front of his laptop all day, mindlessly tapping away, he sent a steady stream of IMs to Stephen complaining about the tedium. "Finding these vulnerabilities, you can train a monkey to do it," Patrick says. "But at the same time, hacking is about the path of least resistance. There's no need to overly complicate things if a simple sequel injection can work." To ease the boredom, Patrick kept a full stash of amusements on hand — dozens of Ecstasy pills, an eight ball of coke, a half-liter of ketamine, shrooms, a vial of acid — and spent his off-hours wandering around Albert's barrio in an altered state. "Don't send any more drugs to Patrick," Albert scolded Stephen. "He's been hacking a lot of shit lately" — that is, doing good work.
Albert needed his best soldier in top form: Operation Get Rich was shifting into its most ambitious phase. Although Patrick's attacks were simple, the overall scheme that Albert had devised was quite sophisticated. Rather than sitting outside shopping malls to probe every store within striking distance for vulnerabilities, Albert and Patrick now reviewed lists of Fortune 500 companies to find juicy targets. Then, to find out what kind of computer systems a firm used, they would swing by one of its retail stores and scope out the terminals at the checkout counters. After hacking into corporate databases through company websites, they unleashed Patrick's malware, which they had pretested against 20 different anti-virus programs to make sure its presence wouldn't be detected. Using Stephen's sniffer code — which he and Patrick had retooled in South Beach after Albert's incessant nagging — they then downloaded the credit-card data in small, well-timed chunks, so as not to alert a victim's server administrator with unusual amounts of activity. When they were done, they neatly erased their digital footprints as they exited the system and installed invisible "back doors" to provide them with future access. They had thought through every angle, right down to the chain of 20 encrypted IP-address proxies they used to obscure their own location.
Still, when Patrick stopped to consider what they were doing, he couldn't help but panic. ("Operation Get Busted or Go to Prison Tryin'," he calls it.) Albert reasoned with him to chill out. After all, he told Patrick, they weren't going to stay in the game forever. Albert's long-term plan was to save enough of their criminal earnings to buy a business — maybe a tire shop — and go legit. On his laptop, Albert jotted a note to himself: "15 million is what I want to have total before I start moving to 2nd phase of laundering it."
Even when warning signs appeared, Albert brushed them off. He might have been the world's leading cybercriminal, but he was also a federal informant, pulling down a paycheck from the U.S. government; he knew from firsthand experience that the feds were tripping over their own feet when it came to catching hackers. One day in March 2008, Albert and Patrick were on their way back from a recon mission at a Miami big-box store when Albert, speeding down the highway in his BMW with D. Ramirez on the stereo, suddenly turned the music down.
"Yo, I think we're being followed," Albert said, eyes on the rearview mirror. Patrick laughed nervously in disbelief, but as Albert slowed for their exit, the faded-gold Camaro several car lengths behind them exited too. Albert drove down a street with two right-hand turning lanes and pulled in behind a bus that was making a stop. "If they get behind us now," he said, "they're definitely tailing us." The car slowly pulled behind them.
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