A Chicago man has pleaded guilty to wire fraud in connection with a scheme that used a phony website to steal credit card and account information from customers of Microsoft's Microsoft Network (MSN) Internet service provider business.
The plea agreement is the latest salvo in the government's stepped up efforts against identity theft and so-called "phisher" websites, which mimic legitimate Web sites and trick unsuspecting Internet users into divulging sensitive personal and financial information.
As part of a plea agreement, 21-year-old Matthew Thomas Guevara acknowledged that he set up a website, www.msnbilling.com, that was designed to harvest personal financial and account information.
Guevara then sent email from Hotmail accounts to MSN customers asking them to visit the site and update their MSN account information, according to the US Department of Justice (DOJ).
Account and credit card information provided through msnbilling.com was actually forwarded to one of the email accounts Guevara set up, the DOJ said.
Guevara will be sentenced on December 5 by a federal judge in the US District Court for the Western District of Washington in Seattle and faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine of up to $US250,000, the DOJ said.
The plea agreement comes amidst increased attention from law enforcement to the threat of online identity theft.
In July, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and ISP Earthlink issued a joint statement that warned consumers about an increase in phisher websites.
One month later, Atlanta-based Earthlink announced that it was suing a Vancouver spam ring that it alleged was using Earthlink email accounts to support a phisher site targeted at America Online members.
The FBI reports a "steady increase" in complaints to its Internet Fraud Complaint Center about the phony websites, while the US Federal Trade Commission said that identity theft had been the number one consumer complaint reported to the agency for the last three years.