The students who became money mules for Eastern European hackers in the theft of $70 million from American bank accounts have remarkably similar stories.
The following account – Margarita Pakhomova’s story -- is based on multiple sources close to the investigation in the case the FBI calls Trident Breach:
In 2010, Margarita Pakhomova was a 20-year-old public relations student living in Pyatigorsk, a town in southern Russia.
In an effort to broaden her horizons, she, like many Russian students, applied to join a work/study program in the United States for four months.
To make a successful application, Russian students pay an agency $100 to get them a job offer in the United States. Some even pay $150 for a fake job offer to help land them a visa.
Margarita had heard horror stories about real offers turning out to be scams, so she opted for a fake offer and decided to wing it on arrival in the United States.
In May 2010, after shelling out $3000 for plane tickets and paperwork, Margarita traveled with four Russian friends to New York.
After getting lost on the New York subway, Margarita and her college friends found a place to stay in Brooklyn. It was a $400-a-month grimy basement. They started looking for work. Since they spoke little English, they bought Russian newspapers every day, turning straight to the job sections. Most of the ads seemed to ask for “dancers” or workers for questionable credit card businesses.
Some friends of friends told Margarita that if she and her friends get really stuck, they could call a special phone number.
Two months into her big New York adventure, Margarita was broke with no money for food and rent.
She had already heard of people who were receiving cash and wiring it overseas. They were making good money and it didn’t seem illegal to her.
Out of desperation, she called that special phone number and two young Russian men appeared. They invited Margarita and her friends to restaurants and clubs, took them around the city and became their friends.
The two Russian men started telling Margarita about all the money she could make, the places she could see, the things she could do. At the time she was down to her last $20, so she opted in. She emailed the two men some passport photos and waited.
Margarita received multiple new, shiny fake passports, Greek and British with fake names. They were so professionally made she couldn’t tell them apart from real ones.
Her handler told her she could open four bank accounts under one passport and so she opened accounts in Manhattan with Chase, Bank of America and Wachovia.
Once the illegal deposits showed up in her accounts, her handler would call and tell her they were going to work. He would pick her up, drive her to the bank and tell her to withdraw the cash and then wire it to Russia or Ukraine by Western Union. While the maximum withdrawal Margarita made was $15,000, she knows other mules who took out up to $50,000 a day. Some made enough on their commission that they were able to buy cars within a week. Margarita made about $4000.
On the day she was supposed to leave New York and head back to Russia, Margarita was tipped off that some of the money mules were being rounded up. In a panic, she headed for the airport.
But something was wrong. Airport security was a nightmare. First, Margarita was told her bag was too heavy. Then she had her purse searched by TSA officers, who claimed they were looking for a computer or cellphone. Margarita later learned these were stalling tactics as, at the time, she had no idea the FBI was bearing down on her.
At the boarding gate, six FBI officers dressed in sporting clothes rushed toward her and arrested her.
At her Federal trial, Margarita was charged with conspiracy to commit bank fraud and false use of passports. She was convicted and sentenced to pay more than $42,000 to the victims of her crimes, along with three years of supervised release, which never happened, because Margarita was deported to Russia.
Editor's Note: Click here to watch Richard Engel's full report, Easy Money. The report aired Wednesday, Mar. 21 on Rock Center with Brian Williams.