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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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25 Wonderful Facts About It’s a Wonderful Life
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Paramount Pictures

Mary Owen wasn’t welcomed into the world until more than a decade after Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life made its premiere in 1946. But she grew up cherishing the film and getting the inside scoop on its making from its star, Donna Reed—who just so happens to be her mom. Though Reed passed away in 1986, Owen has stood as one of the film’s most dedicated historians, regularly introducing screenings of the ultimate holiday classic, including during its annual run at New York City’s IFC Center. She shared some of her mom’s memories with us to help reveal 25 things you might not have known about It’s a Wonderful Life.

1. IT ALL BEGAN WITH A CHRISTMAS CARD.

After years of unsuccessfully trying to shop his short story, The Greatest Gift, to publishers, Philip Van Doren Stern decided to give the gift of words to his closest friends for the holidays when he printed up 200 copies of the story and sent them out as a 21-page Christmas card. David Hempstead, a producer at RKO Pictures, ended up getting a hold of it, and purchased the movie rights for $10,000.

2. CARY GRANT WAS SET TO STAR IN THE ADAPTATION.

When RKO purchased the rights, they did so with the plan of having Cary Grant in the lead. But, as happens so often in Hollywood, the project went through some ups and downs in the development process. In 1945, after a number of rewrites, RKO sold the movie rights to Frank Capra, who quickly recruited Jimmy Stewart to play George Bailey.

3. DOROTHY PARKER WORKED ON THE SCRIPT.


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By the time It’s a Wonderful Life made it into theaters, the story was much different from Stern’s original tale. That’s because more than a half-dozen people contributed to the screenplay, including some of the most acclaimed writers of the time—Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly, and Clifford Odets among them.

4. SCREENWRITERS FRANCES GOODRICH AND ALBERT HACKETT WALKED OUT.

Though they’re credited as the film’s screenwriters with Capra, the husband and wife writing duo were not pleased with the treatment they received from Capra. “Frank Capra could be condescending,” Hackett said in an interview, “and you just didn't address Frances as ‘my dear woman.’ When we were pretty far along in the script but not done, our agent called and said, ‘Capra wants to know how soon you'll be finished.’ Frances said, ‘We're finished right now.’ We put our pens down and never went back to it.”

5. CAPRA DIDN’T DO THE BEST JOB OF SELLING THE FILM TO STEWART.

After laying out the plot line of the film for Stewart in a meeting, Capra realized that, “This really doesn’t sound so good, does it?” Stewart recalled in an interview. Stewart’s reply? “Frank: If you want me to be in a picture about a guy that wants to kill himself and an angel comes down named Clarence who can’t swim and I save him, when do we start?”

6. IT WAS DONNA REED’S FIRST STARRING ROLE.


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Though Donna Reed was hardly a newcomer when It’s a Wonderful Life rolled around, having appeared in nearly 20 projects previously, the film did mark her first starring role. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role today, but Reed had some serious competition from Jean Arthur. “[Frank Capra] had seen mom in They Were Expendable and liked her,” Mary Owen told Mental Floss. “When Capra met my mother at MGM, he knew she'd be just right for Mary Bailey.”

7. MARY OWEN IS NOT NAMED AFTER MARY BAILEY.

Before you ask whether Owen was named after her mom’s much beloved It’s a Wonderful Life character, “The answer is no,” says Owen. “I was named after my great grandmother, Mary Mullenger.”

8. BEULAH BONDI WAS A PRO AT PLAYING STEWART’S MOM.

Beulah Bondi, who plays Mrs. Bailey, didn’t need a lot of rehearsal to play Jimmy Stewart’s mom. She had done it three times previously—in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Human Hearts, and Vivacious Lady—and once later on The Jimmy Stewart Show: The Identity Crisis.

9. CAPRA, REED, AND STEWART HAVE ALL CALLED IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE THEIR FAVORITE MOVIE.


Liberty Films

Though their collective filmographies consist of a couple hundred movies, Capra, Reed, and Stewart have all cited It’s a Wonderful Life as their favorite movie. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra took that praise even one step further, writing: “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”

10. THE MOVIE BOMBED AT THE BOX OFFICE.

Though it has become a quintessential American classic, It’s a Wonderful Life was not an immediate hit with audiences. In fact, it put Capra $525,000 in the hole, which left him scrambling to finance his production company’s next picture, State of the Union.

11. A COPYRIGHT LAPSE AIDED THE FILM’S POPULARITY.

Though it didn’t make much of a dent at the box office, It’s a Wonderful Life found a whole new life on television—particularly when its copyright lapsed in 1974, making it available royalty-free to anyone who wanted to show it for the next 20 years. (Which would explain why it was on television all the time during the holiday season.) The free-for-all ended in 1994.

12. THE ROCK THAT BROKE THE WINDOW OF THE GRANVILLE HOUSE WAS ALL REAL.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

Though Capra had a stuntman at the ready in order to shoot out the window of the Granville House in a scene that required Donna Reed to throw a rock through it, it was all a waste of money. “Mom threw the rock herself that broke the window in the Granville House,” Owen says. “On the first try.”

13. IT TOOK TWO MONTHS TO BUILD BEDFORD FALLS.

Shot on a budget of $3.7 million (which was a lot by mid-1940s standards), Bedford Falls—which covered a full four acres of RKO’s Encino Ranch—was one of the most elaborate movie sets ever built up to that time, with 75 stores and buildings, 20 fully-grown oak trees, factories, residential areas, and a 300-yard-long Main Street.

14. SENECA FALLS, NEW YORK IS “THE REAL BEDFORD FALLS.”

Though Bedford Falls is a fictitious place, the town of Seneca Falls, New York swears that it's the real-life inspiration for George Bailey’s charming hometown. And each year they program a full lineup of holiday-themed events to put locals (and yuletide visitors) into the holiday spirit.

15. THE GYM FLOOR-TURNED-SWIMMING POOL WAS REAL.

Though the bulk of the film was filmed on pre-built sets, the dance at the gym was filmed on location at Beverly Hills High School. And the retractable floor was no set piece. Better known as the Swim Gym, the school is currently in the process of restoring the landmark filming location.

16. ALFALFA IS THE TEENAGER BEHIND THAT SWIMMING POOL PRANK.

Though he’s uncredited in the part, if Freddie Othello—the little prankster who pushes the button that opens the pool that swallows George and Mary up—looks familiar, that’s because he is played by Carl Switzer, a.k.a. Alfalfa of The Little Rascals.

17. DONNA REED WON $50 FROM LIONEL BARRYMORE ... FOR MILKING A COW.

Though she was a Hollywood icon, Donna Reed—born Donnabelle Mullenger—was a farm girl at heart who came to Los Angeles by way of Denison, Iowa. Lionel Barrymore (a.k.a. Mr. Potter) didn’t believe it. “So he bet $50 that she couldn't milk a cow,” recalls Owen. “She said it was the easiest $50 she ever made.”

18. THE FILM WAS SHOT DURING A HEAT WAVE.

It may be an iconic Christmas movie, but It’s a Wonderful Life was actually shot in the summer of 1946—in the midst of a heat wave, no less. At one point, Capra had to shut filming down for a day because of the sky-high temperatures—which also explains why Stewart is clearly sweating in key moments of the film.

19. CAPRA ENGINEERED A NEW KIND OF MOVIE SNOW.

Capra—who trained as an engineer—and special effects supervisor Russell Shearman engineered a new type of artificial snow for the film. At the time, painted cornflakes were the most common form of fake snow, but they posed a bit of an audio problem for Capra. So he and Shearman opted to mix foamite (the stuff you find in fire extinguishers) with sugar and water to create a less noisy option.

20. THE MOVIE WASN’T REQUIRED VIEWING IN REED’S HOUSEHOLD.

Though It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple of many family holiday movie marathons, that wasn’t the case in Reed’s home. In fact, Owen herself didn’t see the film until three decades after its release. “I saw it in the late 1970s at the Nuart Theatre in L.A. and loved it,” she says.

21. ZUZU DIDN’T SEE THE FILM UNTIL 1980.

Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the film, didn’t see the film until 1980. “I never took the time to see the movie,” she told Detroit’s WWJ in 2013. “I never just sat down and watched the film.”

22. THE FBI SAW THE FILM. THEY DIDN’T LIKE IT.

In 1947, the FBI issued a memo noting the film as a potential “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” citing its “rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘Scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.”

23. THE MOVIE’S BERT AND ERNIE HAVE NO RELATION TO SESAME STREET.

Yes, the cop and cab driver in It’s a Wonderful Life are named Bert and Ernie, respectively. But Jim Henson’s longtime writing partner, Jerry Juhl, insists that it’s by coincidence only that they share their names with Sesame Street’s stripe-shirted buds. “I was the head writer for the Muppets for 36 years and one of the original writers on Sesame Street,” Juhl told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. “The rumor about It's a Wonderful Life has persisted over the years. I was not present at the naming, but I was always positive [the rumor] was incorrect. Despite his many talents, Jim had no memory for details like this. He knew the movie, of course, but would not have remembered the cop and the cab driver. I was not able to confirm this with Jim before he died, but shortly thereafter I spoke to Jon Stone, Sesame Street's first producer and head writer and a man largely responsible for the show's format … He assured me that Ernie and Bert were named one day when he and Jim were studying the prototype puppets. They decided that one of them looked like an Ernie, and the other one looked like a Bert. The movie character names are purely coincidental.”

24. SOME PEOPLE ARE ANXIOUS FOR A SEQUEL.

Well, two people: Producers Allen J. Schwalb and Bob Farnsworth, who announced in 2013 that they would be continuing the story with a sequel, It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story, which they planned for a 2015 release. It didn’t take long for Paramount, which owns the copyright, to step in and assure furious fans of the original film that “No project relating to It’s a Wonderful Life can proceed without a license from Paramount. To date, these individuals have not obtained any of the necessary rights, and we would take all appropriate steps to protect those rights.”

25. THE FILM’S ENDURING LEGACY WAS SURPRISING TO CAPRA.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen," Capra said of the film’s classic status. "The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

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Listen to What Darth Vader Sounded Like On the Star Wars Set
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The voice of Darth Vader, provided by James Earl Jones, is one of the most iconic aspects of the original Star Wars movies. But James Earl Jones wasn't the actor wearing that outfit—it was British actor David Prowse, who was cast in part because he was huge (reportedly 6'5" and a former body-building champion).

George Lucas always intended to replace Prowse's voice, but it's still a bit of a shock to hear a muffled British voice coming out of Darth Vader's helmet. Here's video showing what Darth Vader sounded like on the set before James Earl Jones re-recorded the dialogue.

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