Alleged Kingpin of Data Heists Was a Computer Addict, Lawyer Says

Albert Gonzalez, the man described by federal authorities as the kingpin of a gang responsible for stealing more than 130 million payment cards, is a computer addict looking for ways to challenge his abilities, his lawyer said.

By Jaikumar Vijayan and Sharon Gaudin
Thu, August 20, 2009

ComputerworldAlbert Gonzalez, the man described by federal authorities as the kingpin of a gang responsible for stealing more than 130 million payment cards, is a computer addict constantly looking for ways to challenge his abilities, according to his lawyer.

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In a conversation with Computerworld on Wednesday, Rene Palamino, the Miami-based lawyer representing Gonzalez said his client has had an unhealthy obsession with computers since the age of 8. However, he stopped short of saying it was this obsession that might have pushed Gonzalez to get involved with the alleged crimes.

"He was self-taught," Palamino said of Gonzalez. "He didn't go out in the sandbox or play baseball. The computer was his best friend."

Gonzalez was drawn to look for bigger and bigger tests of his abilities, Palomino said. "One challenge was not enough and he'd move on to another challenge," he said. "It wasn't healthy. It's a sickness. It's a problem that has not been addressed in our society." Palomino said he hopes to shed some light on computer addiction and to warn parents about the issue.

"[Gonzalez] is not looking to harm anybody physically," he added. "He's not a hardened criminal."

Gonzalez was one of three individuals indicted Monday in federal district court in New Jersey on charges related to the massive data thefts at Heartland Payment Systems, Hannaford Bros. 7-Eleven Inc and two other unidentified retailers. The three are alleged to have stolen data on more than 130 million payment cards from these five companies.

Gonzalez had been indicted twice last year - in Massachusetts and in New York - in connection with the sensational data heists at TJX Companies Inc., Dave & Busters, BJ's Wholesale Club, OfficeMax, Boston Market, Barnes & Noble, Sports Authority, Forever 21 and DSW. He is being held without bail in a Brooklyn, N.Y., detention center.

It's unclear how much money Gonzalez made from his "operation get rich or die tryin," but it was apparently enough to support a lavish lifestyle. Court documents related to his previous indictments described a $75,000 birthday party that was thrown by Gonzalez, and how he once complained about having to manually count more than $340,000 in cash illegally withdrawn from ATM machines. At the time of his arrest last May, Gonzalez had $1.65 million in bank accounts, a Glock 27 pistol with several rounds of ammunition and numerous PCs, laptop computers and storage devices.

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