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Computer crimes go way back

Updated: June 21, 2013 6:34AM

Fame is not fair. The names of bank robbers of the 1930s, for instance, still roll off our tongues: John Dillinger; Bonnie & Clyde; Pretty Boy Floyd. Crude thugs in souped-up Packards bursting into small town banks, waving guns and fleeing with a couple hundred dollars. Still they are immortal.

Yet who remembers Stanley Mark Rifkin? A robber so deft he managed to steal $10 million from a bank and get away clean without the bank even knowing the money was gone.

For a while at least . . .

I remember, obviously, and his name came to mind as details emerged earlier this month of a complex international computer heist that involved hacking an Indian bank that handled credit limits of MasterCard debit cards. Coordinated teams around the world drained $45 million from thousands of ATMs.

It was a reminder of the endless footrace between computer programmers designing our infinitely complex financial systems and criminals trying to find any crack in the armor that can be exploited for their own gain.

The race has been going on for a very long time, at least back to 1958, when a $35-a-week clerk in Illinois changed his salary punch card so he would receive $55 a week — at least until he got caught.

Rifkin’s crime came 20 years later. A California computer consultant, he knew that the secret code used to approve transactions at the Security Pacific National Bank in Los Angeles was posted on a card on the wall in the wire transfer room.

So on Oct. 25, 1978, he walked into the room — doing work with the bank, he had access. He memorized the code and left. At the end of the business day, at 4:35 p.m., he called the room, pretending to be someone else, and directed $10.1 million to be transferred to an account at the Irving Trust Company in New York. The call raised no eyebrows — the bank moved $20 billion a week in that room. From there, Rifkin moved the money to a Swiss bank.

It was the largest bank robbery in United States history, at the time.

The next day Rifkin flew to Switzerland, withdrew the money and bought all the diamonds that a Russian diamond broker had in stock — 43,200 carats, or 19 pounds of diamonds — and was still left with $2 million in cash, sitting in his account.

He then found himself in a hotel room in Luxembourg, spreading all those diamonds across a red velvet bedspread.

Imagine. The sort of giddy moment that reminds us why — as much as people generally abhor crime — there’s something about a bank robbery that plucks at the imagination. They’re like jail breaks: We want criminals in jail, but if one knots bedsheets together and makes a clean escape, some visceral part of the public psyche is rooting for him to get away — maybe because we love freedom so much, even for people who lost the right to it. Maybe we just admire daring.

With bank robberies, maybe it’s because banks have most of us over a barrel — with credit cards charging 15 percent interest while savings accounts pay 0.35 percent, you could argue that banks engage in a kind of robbery they are brazen enough to advertise in their windows. Of course people would tend to sympathize when the tables are for once turned, bloodlessly, even if it only means they’re the ones who ultimately end up paying the tab. We’re used to that.

Rifkin somehow smuggled his diamonds back to California and was selling them when his plan unraveled. Even smart criminals can do astoundingly dumb things, and Rifkin mentioned the Security Pacific Bank heist to one of his diamond customers, who called the FBI. The bank didn’t know it had been robbed until the feds told them.

Rifkin was sentenced to eight years in prison, served three, and when he got out was hired to do the computer systems at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a nonprofit advocacy group. The Security Pacific National Bank, after a bit of haggling with Uncle Sam, which wanted to seize the diamonds as contraband, eventually got the hoard. It had trouble selling such a large quantity of diamonds, ending up receiving $6.5 million from an Israeli broker. Two years after they had been stolen, the diamonds were being sold in California department stores, advertised as “Hot Ice.” A reminder that the banks may usually win, but they don’t always win.

And Rifkin . . . I couldn’t find anything about him that wasn’t 30 years old. He never wrote a book. And as much as the truth probably is he faded into the routine of life, it costs nothing to imagine that he learned from his mistakes and is even now reclining on that beach of ease that we all seem to dream about in our secret hearts. The tales of computer crime that we know of are wild enough — there must be stories that never got told, because the perpetrators got away with the loot. At least it’s pretty to think so.

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