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The Great ATM Heist: How Thieves Stole $45 Million in a Few Hours

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By Peter Weber

Federal prosecutors in New York announced on Thursday that police had arrested seven suspects in one of the biggest bank heists in history — and none of the hundreds of people involved in 27 countries used a gun or bomb threat, or even set foot inside a bank lobby. U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch compared the sophisticated, "surgical" heist — which netted $45 million in two separate operations — to the casino-theft movie Ocean's Eleven. (Watch an NBC News report on the heist below.)

The network of hackers and street criminals "participated in a massive 21st-century bank heist that reached across the internet and stretched around the globe," Lynch said at a news conference. The plot sounds ready-made for Hollywood. To give a sense of the scope of this operation, here are some key numbers:

$45 million
Amount stolen in a matter of hours in two ATM-withdrawal sprees, on Dec. 22, 2012, and Feb. 19-20, 2013

40,500
Total ATM withdrawals

27
Countries where ATMs were raided in the two operations

17
Prepaid credit card accounts used in the heist, five in December and 12 in February

$2.8 million
Amount stolen from Manhattan ATMs, including $2.4 million on Feb. 19-20

2,904
ATM withdrawals over the 10-hour spree in Manhattan on Feb. 19-20

How did several hundred people manage to pull off a huge bank heist without anyone noticing? The Justice Department says the thieves used what the cyber-criminal underground calls "Unlimited Operations." This is how it works, according to federal prosecutors:

The "Unlimited Operation" begins when the cyber-crime organization hacks into the computer systems of a credit card processor, compromises prepaid debit card accounts, and essentially eliminates the withdrawal limits and account balances of those accounts. The elimination of withdrawal limits enables the participants to withdraw literally unlimited amounts of cash until the operation is shut down.... These attacks rely upon both highly sophisticated hackers and organized criminal cells whose role is to withdraw the cash as quickly as possible....

First, over the course of months, the hackers plan and execute sophisticated cyber intrusions to gain unauthorized access to the computer networks of credit card processors that are responsible for processing prepaid debit card transactions. They target databases of prepaid debit cards, which are typically loaded with finite funds; such cards are used by many employers in lieu of paychecks and by charitable organizations to distribute disaster assistance.... Next, the cybercrime organization cashes in, by distributing the hacked prepaid debit card numbers to trusted associates around the world.... These associates operate cells or teams of "cashers," who encode magnetic stripe cards, such as gift cards, with the compromised card data. When the cybercrime organization distributes the personal identification numbers (PINs) for the hacked accounts, the casher cells spring into action, immediately withdrawing cash from ATMs across the globe. [DOJ]

The hacker-masterminds watched the ATM withdrawals on their computers, so they wouldn't get cheated out of their share — the eight-member New York cell kept 20 percent of their haul, Lynch said, and sent the rest to the heist organizers. Then the "cashers" laundered the money, in part by buying Rolex watches and luxury cars.

The feds didn't provide much information about the international investigation into the global heist, or say how many people have been arrested in other countries. And they didn't drop any clues as to who organized the operation, other than saying that an email links the New York cell to a money-laundering gang in St. Petersburg, Russia. But the New York group appears to have been caught at least partly through old fashioned police work, mixed with a dash of modern hubris: The thieves were photographed by multiple ATMs, their backpacks getting visibly heavier at each stop, and some posted photos of themselves with wads of cash.

Here's where things get really dramatic: The New York cell was made up of eight Dominican-Americans living in Yonkers. The first member was arrested March 27, trying to flee to the Dominican Republic, and the last two were picked up on Wednesday. The alleged ringleader, Alberto Yusi Lajud-Peña, wasn't arrested because he's dead. The New York Times explains:

Lajud-Peña fled the United States just as the authorities were starting to make arrests of members of his crew, the law enforcement official said. On April 27, according to news reports from the Dominican Republic, two hooded gunmen stormed a house where he was playing dominoes and began shooting. A manila envelope containing about $100,000 in cash remained untouched. [New York Times]

Yikes, says Tom Levenson at Balloon Juice. "I have no doubt that there are folks involved in this that you really, really don't want to irritate." But while $45 million is a huge haul, this is still the "least surprising story of the year," he argues:

Part of me says that this is something to note because so much of the financial life of individuals and the economy writ large depends on the secure functioning of — and user trust in — global banking systems at every level from the corner ATM to the massive inter-bank clearing mechanisms. The cyber-security people I talk to have to hold their hands over the mouths to stop themselves from blurting "WAKE UP SHEEPLE!!!!!" — as that trust rests on a rickety tangle of hardware and software. So while there's a kind of Great Train Robbery thrill to the idea of capers like these, this could get ugly indeed. [Balloon Juice]

In other words, even though no individual's bank account was compromised in this attack, everyone who doesn't keep their savings under the mattress is vulnerable. In this case, the hackers were able to exploit the weak links in the financial system — U.S. and Indian credit card processors, considered less secure than banks, and prepaid cards issued by banks in the Persian Gulf, where customers are generally allowed to put much larger amounts on prepaid cards and the banks don't monitor the cards as closely. "Hackers only need to find one vulnerability to cause millions of dollars of damage," former cyber-crimes prosecutor Mark Rasch tells Reuters.

Of course, the question everyone wants answered, says Balloon Juice's Levenson, is "what role George Clooney will play?"

NBC News explains the robbery:

Sources: The Associated PressBalloon JuiceGothamistJustice DepartmentThe New York Times,Reuters

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Bad Moods Might Make You More Productive
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iStock

Being in a bad mood at work might not be such a bad thing. New research shows that foul moods can lead to better executive function—the mental processing that handles skills like focus, self-control, creative thinking, mental flexibility, and working memory. But the benefit might hinge on how you go through emotions.

As part of the study, published in Personality and Individual Differences, a pair of psychologists at the University of Waterloo in Canada subjected more than 90 undergraduate students to a battery of tests designed to measure their working memory and inhibition control, two areas of executive function. They also gave the students several questionnaires designed to measure their emotional reactivity and mood over the previous week.

They found that some people who were in slightly bad moods performed significantly better on the working memory and inhibition tasks, but the benefit depended on how the person experienced emotion. Specifically, being in a bit of a bad mood seemed to boost the performance of participants with high emotional reactivity, meaning that they’re sensitive, have intense reactions to situations, and hold on to their feelings for a long time. People with low emotional reactivity performed worse on the tasks when in a bad mood, though.

“Our results show that there are some people for whom a bad mood may actually hone the kind of thinking skills that are important for everyday life,” one of the study’s co-authors, psychology professor Tara McAuley, said in a press statement. Why people with bigger emotional responses experience this boost but people with less-intense emotions don’t is an open question. One hypothesis is that people who have high emotional reactivity are already used to experiencing intense emotions, so they aren’t as fazed by their bad moods. However, more research is necessary to tease out those factors.

[h/t Big Think]

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Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
The 10 Wildest Movie Plot Twists
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

An ending often makes or breaks a movie. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as having the rug pulled out from under you, particularly in a thriller. But too many flicks that try to shock can’t stick the landing—they’re outlandish and illogical, or signal where the plot is headed. Not all of these films are entirely successful, but they have one important attribute in common: From the classic to the cultishly beloved, they involve hard-to-predict twists that really do blow viewers’ minds, then linger there for days, if not life. (Warning: Massive spoilers below.)

1. PSYCHO (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock often constructed his movies like neat games that manipulated the audience. The Master of Suspense delved headfirst into horror with Psycho, which follows a secretary (Janet Leigh) who sneaks off with $40,000 and hides in a motel. The ensuing jolt depends on Leigh’s fame at the time: No one expected the ostensible star and protagonist to die in a gory (for the time) shower butchering only a third of the way into the running time. Hitchcock outdid that feat with the last-act revelation that Anthony Perkins’s supremely creepy Norman Bates is embodying his dead mother.

2. PLANET OF THE APES (1968)

No, not the botched Tim Burton remake that tweaked the original movie’s famous reveal in a way that left everyone scratching their heads. The Charlton Heston-starring sci-fi gem continues to stupefy anyone who comes into its orbit. Heston, of course, plays an astronaut who travels to a strange land where advanced apes lord over human slaves. It becomes clear once he finds the decrepit remains of the Statue of Liberty that he’s in fact on a future Earth. The anti-violence message, especially during the political tumult of 1968, shook people up as much as the time warp.

3. DEEP RED (1975)

It’s not rare for a horror movie to flip the script when it comes to unmasking its killer, but it’s much rarer that such a film causes a viewer to question their own perception of the world around them. Such is the case for Deep Red, Italian director Dario Argento’s (Suspiria) slasher masterpiece. A pianist living in Rome (David Hemmings) comes upon the murder of a woman in her apartment and teams up with a female reporter to find the person responsible. Argento’s whodunit is filled to the brim with gorgeous photography, ghastly sights, and delirious twists. But best of all is the final sequence, in which the pianist retraces his steps to discover that the killer had been hiding in plain sight all along. Rewind to the beginning and you’ll discover that you caught an unknowing glimpse, too.

4. SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983)

Sleepaway Camp is notorious among horror fans for a number of reasons: the bizarre, stilted acting and dialogue; hilariously amateurish special effects; and ‘80s-to-their-core fashions. But it’s best known for the mind-bending ending, which—full disclosure—reads as possibly transphobic today, though it’s really hard to say what writer-director Robert Hiltzik had in mind. Years after a boating accident that leaves one of two siblings dead, Angela is raised by her aunt and sent to a summer camp with her cousin, where a killer wreaks havoc. In the lurid climax, we see that moody Angela is not only the murderer—she’s actually a boy. Her aunt, who always wanted a daughter, raised her as if she were her late brother. The final animalistic shot prompts as many gasps as cackles.

5. THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995)

The Usual Suspects has left everyone who watches it breathless by the time they get to the fakeout conclusion. Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey), a criminal with cerebral palsy, regales an interrogator in the stories of his exploits with a band of fellow crooks, seen in flashback. Hovering over this is the mysterious villainous figure Keyser Söze. It’s not until Verbal leaves and jumps into a car that customs agent David Kujan realizes that the man fabricated details, tricking the law and the viewer into his fake reality, and is in fact the fabled Söze.

6. PRIMAL FEAR (1996)

No courtroom movie can surpass Primal Fear’s discombobulating effect. Richard Gere’s defense attorney becomes strongly convinced that his altar boy client Aaron (Edward Norton) didn’t commit the murder of an archbishop with which he’s charged. The meek, stuttering Aaron has sudden violent outbursts in which he becomes "Roy" and is diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, leading to a not guilty ruling. Gere’s lawyer visits Aaron about the news, and as he’s leaving, a wonderfully maniacal Norton reveals that he faked the multiple personalities.

7. FIGHT CLUB (1999)

Edward Norton is no stranger to taking on extremely disparate personalities in his roles, from Primal Fear to American History X. The unassuming actor can quickly turn vicious, which led to ideal casting for Fight Club, director David Fincher’s adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel. Fincher cleverly keeps the audience in the dark about the connections between Norton’s timid, unnamed narrator and Brad Pitt’s hunky, aggressive Tyler Durden. After the two start the titular bruising group, the plot significantly increases the stakes, with the club turning into a sort of anarchist terrorist organization. The narrator eventually comes to grips with the fact that he is Tyler and has caused all the destruction around him.

8. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)

Early in his career, M. Night Shyamalan was frequently (perhaps a little too frequently) compared to Hitchcock for his ability to ratchet up tension while misdirecting his audience. He hasn’t always earned stellar reviews since, but The Sixth Sense remains deservedly legendary for its final twist. At the end of the ghost story, in which little Haley Joel Osment can see dead people, it turns out that the psychologist (Bruce Willis) who’s been working with the boy is no longer living himself, the result of a gunshot wound witnessed in the opening sequence.

9. THE OTHERS (2001)

The Sixth Sense’s climax was spooky, but not nearly as unnerving as Nicole Kidman’s similarly themed ghost movie The Others, released just a couple years later. Kidman gives a superb performance in the elegantly styled film from the Spanish writer-director Alejandro Amenábar, playing a mother in a country house after World War II protecting her photosensitive children from light and, eventually, dead spirits occupying the place. Only by the end does it become clear that she’s in denial about the fact that she’s a ghost, having killed her children in a psychotic break before committing suicide. It’s a bleak capper to a genuinely haunting yarn.

10. MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)

David Lynch’s surrealist movies may follow dream logic, but that doesn’t mean their plots can’t be readily discerned. Mulholland Drive is his most striking work precisely because, in spite of its more wacko moments, it adds up to a coherent, tragic story. The mystery starts innocently enough with the dark-haired Rita (Laura Elena Harring) waking up with amnesia from a car accident in Los Angeles and piecing together her identity alongside the plucky aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts). It takes a blue box to unlock the secret that Betty is in fact Diane, who is in love with and envious of Camilla (also played by Harring) and has concocted a fantasy version of their lives. The real Diane arranges for Camilla to be killed, leading to her intense guilt and suicide. Only Lynch can go from Nancy Drew to nihilism so swiftly and deftly.

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