4 Famous Hackers Who Got Caught

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Just recently we were reminded how delicate our online ecosystem really is when the mysterious group Anonymous took down big websites like Visa, Mastercard, and PayPal because they refused to support WikiLeaks. Anonymous is the latest in the fascinating history of hackers who have had their way with supposedly secure computer systems. The big difference – most of the other guys got caught.

1. KEVIN POULSEN

In 1988, at the age of 23, Kevin Poulsen, known online as Dark Dante, hacked into a federal computer network and started poking around in files for the investigation of Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos. It wasn't his first hack, but it was the first time the feds had noticed him. When he found out they were on to him, he went on the run. But like so many hackers, that didn't mean he went offline.

During the 17 months he was underground, Poulsen hacked FBI files, revealing wiretap details for mobsters, foreign politicians, and the American Civil Liberties Union. He and some hacker friends also took over the phone lines for an L.A. radio station, ensuring they were the winning caller in contests, netting themselves two Porsche sports cars, a couple Hawaiian vacations, and $20,000 in cash. When the TV show Unsolved Mysteries picked up on Poulsen's story and broadcast a segment about him, mysteriously, as soon as the screen displayed the toll-free number viewers could use to report tips on the case, all the show's phone lines went dead. Still, the episode proved to be his downfall, as Poulsen was apprehended shortly after when the employees of a supermarket recognized him from the show.

During their prosecution, the FBI called Poulsen "The Hannibal Lecter of Computer Crime," scaring the courts enough to warrant holding him without bail for five years in a federal prison while the government put their case together. However, when all was said and done, they could only charge him with lesser crimes like money laundering and wire fraud, dropping some of the more serious hacking charges altogether. He was sentenced to "time served" and released, but was barred from touching a computer for three years.

Since then, Poulsen has become a respected journalist, writing about computer security for Wired Magazine, as well as a few books on the subject, like Kingpin, which comes out in February. He has also used his hacking skills for the forces of good, famously finding 744 registered sex offenders who were using MySpace to troll for underage victims.

2. ALBERT GONZALEZ

Albert Gonzalez, known online as CumbaJohnny, was the mastermind behind shadowcrew.com, a black market website for hackers to sell stolen credit card numbers, Social Security Numbers, passports, and just about any other type of information imaginable. But when he got arrested for credit card fraud in 2003, he switched sides and became the key informant for the government in "Operation: Firewall," a massive program designed to take down hackers. Thanks to Gonzalez's assistance, 28 hackers, scattered across eight states and six foreign countries, were indicted on charges of selling around 1.7 million credit card numbers. For his assistance, Gonzalez was immune from all charges and was offered a job at the Secret Service.

With the Secret Service looking over his shoulder, Gonzalez developed a new online persona known as "soupnazi" to help snare hackers for the U.S. Government. But once he left the office for the day, soupnazi partnered with hacker Maksym Yastremski (aka Maksik), a Ukrainian whose sales of stolen credit card information were said to have reached $11 million between 2004 and 2006 alone.

To get credit card numbers for Maksik to sell, soupnazi and his hacker friends began "wardriving" – driving around town with a laptop hooked up to a powerful antenna, looking for wireless network signals they could breach. From the parking lots of major stores like TJMaxx, Target, Barnes & Noble, and many others, they installed "packet sniffers," software that can sit on the server undetected and grab data, like every credit or debit card transaction, from the store's vulnerable computer network. The sniffer then sent the credit card information over the internet to one of Yastremski's PCs in Turkey, allowing them to collect thousands of valid credit card numbers. Meanwhile, two European cohorts hacked Heartland Payment Systems, one of the largest credit card payment processing companies in the world, and stole card information from an astonishing 130 million transactions. With the two operations combined, Gonzalez and Yastremski were sitting on a virtual goldmine.

With an influx of cash, Gonzalez bought a brand new BMW, and blew thousands of dollars every weekend with his hacker friends on drinks, drugs, women, and swanky hotel suites. That year, he also threw himself a $75,000 birthday party. By this time, Gonzalez was no longer working for the Secret Service, who suspected he was up to no good but couldn't find any evidence. Gonzalez had taught the feds much of what they knew about hacking, so he also knew how to cover his tracks. Their suspicions were confirmed when Ukrainian authorities caught up with Gonzalez's partner, Yastremski. After searching through the files on Yastremski's seized computers, investigators found records of over 600 instant message conversations about acquiring stolen card numbers for sale. The IM name Yastremski was talking to was registered to the email address soupnazi@efnet.ru.

Gonzalez and 10 others were indicted in federal court in August 2008. Gonzalez pleaded guilty to all charges and, in March 2010, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. It's been estimated that the companies hit by soupnazi and his crew have spent more than $400 million to cover the damages done by these 11 men and their 11 computers.

3. KEVIN MITNICK

Using the alias "Condor," Kevin Mitnick's first big hack was a Department of Defense computer, which he gained access to when he was only 16 years old. His most famous crime in his younger days was stealing $1 million worth of software from computer company Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). So when the FBI began investigating him in connection with a hack of the California Department of Motor Vehicles in 1992, he was determined not to get caught again and made a run for it. While a fugitive from the law, Mitnick continued to use a laptop and cell phone to break into computer networks and telephone systems across the country, stealing software, files, access codes, and anything else he could get his hands on, including some 20,000 credit card numbers.

For some hackers, like Mitnick, hacking isn't about the money; it's about being better than the other guy. Mitnick was barely challenged by the FBI on his tail, but on Christmas Day 1994, he found the perfect nemesis when he broke into the home computer of network security expert Tsutomu Shimomura (at left). Shimomura took the breach personally and began a year-long crusade to bring Mitnick down. Like a true cat and mouse game, the two were pretty well matched – for every move Mitnick made, Shimomura had a counter move. For example, thanks to internet monitoring stations set up by Shimomura, he was able to track the online movements of Mitnick. But that didn't matter, because Mitnick used his knowledge of telephone and computer networking systems to disguise his real-world location. In the end, though, the resources of the FBI and the skills of Shimomura were too much for one man. After evading capture for over two years, the FBI tracked Mitnick to an apartment in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he was arrested on February 15, 1995.

Thanks to a plea agreement, Mitnick spent five and a half years in prison. However, eight months of that time was in solitary confinement after federal prosecutors convinced the judge of the ridiculous notion that Mitnick could launch nuclear warheads by simply whistling the proper tones into a telephone receiver. Since his release, Mitnick has become a well known speaker at hacking and security conferences, as well as the head of his own company, Mitnick Security Consulting.

4. JEANSON JAMES ANCHETA

Just because you're using the mouse and typing on the keyboard doesn't mean you have complete control over your computer. If you're connected to the internet, your PC could be a "zombie," an unwilling member of a "botnet." A botnet is a large network of computers that have been infected with the same virus that will force them to perform some function for the "bot herder," the person who created and controls this illegal network of PCs. Usually, the herder will have your PC send out a few spam emails without your knowledge, or it could become part of an army of computers repeatedly contacting a website, forcing the site to shut down, in what is known as a "Denial-of-Service" (DoS) attack. Because DoS attacks are automated, they can often go on as long as the hacker controlling it would like, opening up the perfect opportunity for extortion (Pay up or the DoS will continue).

For 20-year-old high school dropout Jeanson James Ancheta, creating botnets became easy thanks to software he discovered online. As he continually expanded his army, he set up a website where he rented his zombies to spammers or hackers, complete with price ranges and recommendations for the number of zombies needed to complete the dirty job at hand. At one time during the course of his 14 month crime spree, it's estimated that Ancheta had over 500,000 computers at his disposal, some of which were owned by the U.S. Navy and the Department of Defense. Business was good, as Ancheta was able to buy a used BMW, spent about $600 a week on clothes and car parts, and had around $60,000 in cash at his disposal.

But the fun ended when Ancheta became the first person to be indicted for creating a botnet after getting caught as part of the FBI's "Operation: Bot Roast," a nationwide push to bring down bot herders. In 2006, he pleaded guilty to four felony charges and was sentenced to 57 months in prison, forced to give up his car and the $60,000 in cash, and to pay restitution of $15,000 for infecting federally owned computers.

The Very Real Events That Inspired Game of Thrones's Red Wedding

Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham, Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Ask any Game of Thrones fan to cite a few of the show's most shocking moments, and the so-called "Red Wedding" from season 3's "The Rains of Castamere" episode will likely be at the top of their list. The events that unfolded during the episode shocked fans because of their brutality, but what might be even more surprising to know is that the episode was based on very real events.

Author George R.R. Martin has said that the inspiration for the matrimonial bloodbath is based on two dark events in Scottish history: the Black Dinner of 1440 and 1692's Massacre of Glencoe. “No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse,” Martin told Entertainment Weekly in 2013. And he’s absolutely right. See for yourself.

The Massacre of Glencoe

The West Highland Way in 2005, view from the summit of the Devil's Staircase looking south over the east end of Glen Coe, towards Buachaille Etive Mòr with Creise and Meall a' Bhuiridh beyond
Colin Souza, Edited by Dave Souza, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

In 1691, all Scottish clans were called upon to renounce the deposed King of Scotland, James VII, and swear allegiance to King William of Orange (of William and Mary fame). The chief of each clan had until January 1, 1692, to provide a signed document swearing an oath to William. The Highland Clan MacDonald had two things working against them here. First of all, the Secretary of State, John Dalrymple, was a Lowlander who loathed Clan MacDonald. Secondly, Clan MacDonald had already sworn an oath to James VII and had to wait on him to send word that they were free to break that oath.

Unfortunately, it was December 28 before a messenger arrived with this all-important letter from the former king. That gave Maclain, the chief of the MacDonald clan, just three days to get the newly-signed oath to the Secretary of State.

Maclain was detained for days when he went through Inveraray, the town of the rival Clan Campbell, but still managed to deliver the oath, albeit several days late. The Secretary of State’s legal team wasn't interested in late documents. They rejected the MacDonalds's sworn allegiance to William, and set plans in place to cut the clan down, “root and branch.”

In late January or early February, 120 men under the command of Captain Robert Campbell arrived at the MacDonalds's in Glencoe, claiming to need shelter because a nearby fort was full. The MacDonalds offered their hospitality, as was custom, and the soldiers stayed there for nearly two weeks before Captain Drummond arrived with instructions to “put all to the sword under seventy.”

After playing cards with their victims and wishing them goodnight, the soldiers waited until the MacDonalds were asleep ... then murdered as many men as they could manage. In all, 38 people—some still in their beds—were killed. At least 40 women and children escaped, but fleeing into a blizzard blowing outside as their houses burned down meant that they all died of exposure.

The massacre was considered especially awful because it was “Slaughter Under Trust.” To this day, the door at Clachaig Inn in Glen Coe has a sign on the door that says "No hawkers or Campbells."

The Black Dinner

In November of 1440, the newly-appointed 6th Earl of Douglas, who was just 16, and his little brother David, were invited to join the 10-year-old King of Scotland, James II, for dinner at Edinburgh Castle. But it wasn’t the young King who had invited the Douglas brothers. The invitation had been issued by Sir William Crichton, Chancellor of Scotland, who feared that the Black Douglas (there was another clan called the Red Douglas) were growing too powerful.

As legend has it, the children were all getting along marvelously, enjoying food, entertainment and talking until the end of the dinner, when the head of a black bull was dropped on the table, symbolizing the death of the Black Douglas. The two young Douglases were dragged outside, given a mock trial, found guilty of high treason, and beheaded. It’s said that the Earl pleaded for his brother to be killed first so that the younger boy wouldn’t have to witness his older brother’s beheading.

Sir Walter Scott wrote this of the horrific event:

"Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin!
And that e'en for the black dinner
Earl Douglas gat therein."

This article has been updated for 2019.

When Skeleton Rocking Chairs and ‘Vampire Killing Kits’ Fooled People Into Thinking They Were Rare Historical Artifacts

A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
Glen Bowman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 2012, bizarre rocking chairs—usually dark brown, with various kinds of ornate flourishes, always in the shape of a skeleton—began popping up on sites across the internet. Gothic.org and io9 ran stories about them, and Facebook pages like Steampunk Tendencies soon followed. The chairs were sometimes described as modeled on 19th-century Russian examples—and other times described as 19th-century Russian items themselves.

The grotesque chairs were funny, but got even funnier in 2013 when someone appropriated a photo from an auction house and meme-ified it. They added a blurred effect and magnified the skeleton’s anguished, open-mouthed expression, making it seem as if it were screaming into the void—perhaps upon realizing that it must spend the rest of eternity as a rocking chair in some eccentric collector’s parlor. By early 2014, someone on 4chan had associated the meme with the words “Wake Me Up Inside (Can't Wake Up)” after lyrics from the 2003 song "Bring Me to Life" by rock band Evanescence. Then, in true internet fashion, people started adding their own text.

By then, another story had attached itself to the chairs. In 2009, the Lawrence Journal-World discussed the macabre furniture item in a column titled "Ghoulish pieces attract collectors," and suggested that the chair had something to do with a Masonic ritual.

So—aside from the joy of a good meme—what’s the deal? Was this chair used in some secret society's ceremony, or is it just a strange artifact made by some long-forgotten Russian woodworker?

A Macabre Fantasy

According to James Jackson, the answer is neither. Jackson—the president and CEO of Jackson’s Auctions in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and a specialist in Russian art—sold the chair that was featured in several of the early news stories.

He says most of these chairs were probably made in the '90s, but were designed to look older to fool buyers into forking over more money. “These are the type of things that are created in various markets to appeal to the eclectic, exotic tastes of a wannabe fine art consumer,” Jackson tells Mental Floss. “So the person making this chair—and the guy buying it and reselling it—they understand this brain very well.”

The precise origins of the chairs Jackson's sold are murky. A couple of the chairs were sold to a third-party seller called a consignor, who then resold them to Jackson’s Auctions. Jackson suspects they were probably made somewhere in Europe—probably at a workshop where the primary goal is to “make a buck.” That would explain why no artist or craftsman's name is ever attached to the chairs.

These “fantasy chairs” were initially thought to be rare, and some sellers may have benefited from the myths and stories surrounding their origin. Over the years, people started to see more and more of these chairs at auction, which contributed to their diminishing value. Jackson said his auction house sold one of the chairs for $2600 in 2008, but in 2012, the price dropped to $1500. At its lowest price point, a skeleton chair sold for $900 in Detroit, according to Jackson's database of different auction houses.

Artifacts of the Hyperreal

Jackson says the skeleton chairs remind him of the vampire slayer kits that were popular in the '90s, and continued to be sold throughout the 2000s (they still pop up on eBay and other online auctions from time to time). Wooden trunks—purportedly full of vampire-repelling tools from the 1800s such as wooden stakes, garlic, a crucifix, and sometimes pistols—used to command high prices at auction. Sotheby’s even sold one for $25,000 in 2011.

“It was BS,” Jackson says of the trunks, explaining that while they may have contained old tools, the pieces were assembled later for commercial purposes and given a phony backstory. “Whenever we see anything weird like that, it’s an automatic red flag. To the consumer, though, they want it to be some rare and unusual thing—and that’s not true.”

Jackson said one obvious sign that the slaying kits were inauthentic was that "they don’t show up in any literature prior to the 1990s, [and] something like that would have been written about somewhere.” In hindsight, Jackson thinks the whole scam was pretty comical. He said you had experts on TV doing careful analyses of the paper labels inside these kits, when in reality, all they had to do was use a magnifying glass to see that the letters were printed by a dot matrix.

"It’s like doing a metallurgic study on a brand new Mercedes-Benz," he said. “I didn’t have to get a microscope out and a black light and spend an hour fondling it. It’s common sense.”

Jonathan Ferguson, a curator at the UK-based National Museum of Arms and Armour, also debunked these hunting trunks. He wrote in a blog post, “Nowhere was there evidence to support real vampire slayers carting about one of these kits.”

Still, he wrote that they were somewhat valuable as “genuine artifacts of the Gothic fiction,” and rather than being seen as fakes (since there never was a Victorian original), should be seen as "'hyperreal' or invented artifacts somewhat akin to stage, screen or magician's props."

As for the Sotheby's kit that was snatched up for $25,000, its creation was also probably inspired by the popularity of Dracula (1897) and other late 19th century vampire lore, according to Dennis Harrington, head of Sotheby's European furniture department in New York City. Harrington notes that some of the pieces inside the kit are valuable in their own right.

"[The kit] was complete and did contain individual elements that have some intrinsic value themselves, like silver bullets and an ivory figure of Christ on the Cross (though we can no longer sell ivory items today) ..." Harrington tells Mental Floss. "The curiosity value would also have helped, and of course the golden rule of auctions is that any one lot is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it on a particular day."

Likewise, the skeleton rocking chairs—despite not being antiques—certainly have their own unique appeal. “They’re cool, they’re neat. These are ‘man cave’ type things for the most part,” Jackson says. However, “They’re obviously not functional. You can’t sit in it comfortably.”

And what of the skeleton meme? Do the makers of these chairs know that their creation has been turned into an absurd internetism? Jackson, for his part, hadn’t heard anything about it. “I’m glad they made a joke out of [the chairs],” he said, “but I don’t know what meme means.”

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