Wednesday 17 January 2018

The crime of the 21st century

They said it was the perfect crime, except it wasn't. The gang would have gotten away with it were it not for greed, criminal stupidity, and the frigid obstinacy of a Boston winter.

The Great Brink's Robbery occurred on this date in 1950. The heist took two years to plan and was at the time the largest bank robbery in United States history, pulling in $2.775 million USD ($28.2 million USD today.) The robbers, who wore uniforms similar to those of Brink's employees and Halloween masks, left but three clues, none of which was helpful in their capture. (DNA evidence was not used in forensics until 1986, otherwise the chauffeur's cap left behind by one of the robbers may have given him up sooner.)

Brink's attempted some prehistoric crowdsourcing in seeking information about the crime, offering $100,000 USD for tips leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrators. No internet was needed to receive hundreds of dead ends and conspiracy theories, as any kook with a phone seemed to have a "tip." Police rounded up the usual suspects around Beantown, but it was a long list of hoodlums and hooligans.

Since the robbery had occurred in the dead of winter, the Boston ground was thoroughly frozen. Despite the careful planning of the thieves, it seems they had not considered winter's wrath, as they surely would have buried the cut up pieces of the getaway truck had the ground been receptive to a shovel. Instead, bags of the cut up truck meant for interment were discovered by police two months after the heist. Having learned through interviews that witnesses had seen a green truck outside the bank that day, the discovery of parts of a truck matching that description proved to be a break in the case. Two of the suspects lived in the neighborhood where the parts were discovered, bringing closer scrutiny upon them.

But it would be years before any arrests could be made; in fact, the gang were arrested a mere five days before the statute of limitations ran out, five days shy of the six year mark that would have put them in the clear forever.

In the meantime, two of the gang members went to prison for another burglary. Another went to prison for tax evasion. One had to fight deportation. A fifth spent time in prison for parole violations. One died. The robbers had agreed not to touch the money until the statute of limitations had expired, but all of this legal trouble left some of them in need of the loot before then. One kidnapped another for ransom, then was shot and wounded by a hitman. In the end, he was the one who confessed, imagining his associates living life in luxury while he spent his remaining years in prison for another crime. The gang ended up getting eight to ten years in prison, and half of the money was never recovered.

Over the years, many bigger bank heists made the nearly $3 million from Brink's seem like small potatoes. The Guinness Book of World Records lists the robbery of the Banco Central in Fortaleza, Brazil as the largest physical bank heist in history. They made off with about $160 million USD. Some of the thieves have been arrested; most have not. Some ended up dead. Only $20 million USD have been recovered to date.

These days, you need not suffer the physical labor of robbing a bank or risk getting backstabbed, kidnapped, or murdered by your co-conspirators.  Now you can rob away from the comfort of your living room all alone. All you need is a decent internet connection, some hacking skills, and a secure place to change the money into something usable and untraceable.

The first online bank robbery happened in 1994, when much of the world had never heard of the internet, the FBI had no cybercrime team, and Nigerian princes had yet to ask you to help them save their funds. A group of criminals on mulitiple continents, led by a Russian programmer named Vladimir Levin, hacked into Citibank and began to steal money, adding up to more than $10 million USD. (The more things change, the more they stay the same?) He was eventually convicted and sentenced to three years in prison, with all but $400,000 USD recovered.

Today, a major target for virtual bank robbers is Swift, the international monetary transfer system. Perhaps the largest of these robberies involved the Bangladesh Bank, when hackers made off with more than $80 million USD. It is thought that at least ten similar, albeit smaller attacks, have hit Swift.

Card cloning is another new development in the world of bank robbery. One group took $45 million USD from ATMs in a matter of hours. Hackers can get your card information when you use it online.

Phishing and malware are a favorite tool of the nouveau bank robber. You can protect yourself by reciting this mantra: if it's spamming that you think, don't you dare click that link. Or just follow this advice:

Global financial institutions suffer tens of thousands of cyberattacks every minute. Hackers would love to get their hands on your financial information - account numbers, your address, the routing number that would allow them to transfer your funds into an account of their choosing... Yet too many of the world's banks don't realize the extent of their cybersecurity problems. One macrocosmic solution to the problem is to introduce regulatory legislation that requires financial institutions to take greater cybersecurity precautions. At the very least, you can ask your bank to do so.

Of course, physical bank robberies still happen. In 2016 in the United States alone, more than 4,000 bank robberies took place. But there's a new twist on the physical robbery - thieves are posing as IT support and installing devices to siphon off cash electronically. What's more, criminals can use DDoS attacks to take CCTV offline long enough for them to pull off a traditional mask-on, hands-up bank robbery. Technology can make our lives easier, even for those of us with criminal proclivities.

One aside: several films were made about the Great Brink's Heist, including 1978's The Brink's Job. In August of that year, 15 unedited reels of the film were stolen at gunpoint by robbers demanding a $1 million USD ransom. The joke was on them, however, as positive prints of the negatives existed elsewhere, and nothing was lost, proving, once again, that crime doesn't pay in the end.

All is not lost. Take steps to protect yourself from virtual bank robbers using VPN encryption. Get it here:

No comments:

Post a Comment