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Old May 17th, 2003, 03:06 PM        135 Arrested

Authorities Arrest 135 in Nationwide Cybercrime Sweep
Fri May 16, 3:50 PM ET
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By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Attorney General John Ashcroft (news - web sites) said Friday 135 people have been charged and more than $17 million seized in a crackdown on investment swindles, identity theft and other forms of Internet fraud (news - web sites) and abuse.

U.S. law-enforcement officers arrested 50 suspects this week in an effort to combat the fast-growing online crime that now accounts for more than half of all fraud complaints, Ashcroft said.

Those arrested stand accused of a variety of crimes, from setting up fake banking Web sites to collect the account numbers of unsuspecting customers to surreptitiously taping and selling unreleased movies, Ashcroft said.

Many of the cases involved advertising goods or services that did not exist. Defendants allegedly sold computers, video- game consoles, Beanie Babies and other items through e-mail or online auction sites but never delivered them, while others allegedly sold counterfeit software and watches.

One California resident was charged with operating a bogus investment scheme that took in $60 million from some 15,000 victims worldwide, while a San Diego couple was charged with taking in $600,000 through a matchmaking service that promised to pair lonely men with Russian or Ukrainian women.

According to charges filed by the Justice Department (news - web sites), some defendants tapped into the customer lists of a California amusement park and the tax rolls of a Pennsylvania city in a bid to take out credit cards in other people's names.

Since Jan. 1, the Justice Department and other federal agencies have uncovered more than 89,000 victims bilked out of some $176 million, Ashcroft said.

The Internet's borderless nature presents new opportunities to scam artists whose reach would normally be limited and requires law enforcement agencies to work together to catch them, Ashcroft said.

"These cyberswindles and dot-cons present new challenges to law enforcement," he said.

FBI (news - web sites) Director Robert Muller said the federal crime-fighting agency has set up 60 specialized teams around the country to combat online fraud.

Internet fraud complaints have risen steadily over the past several years and now account for more than half of all fraud complaints received by the Federal Trade Commission, FTC Chairman Timothy Muris said.

The effort also involved agents from the Postal Inspection Service, the Secret Service (news - web sites), the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as state and local police
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