Small Romanian town's major industry is online fraud

Yudhijit Bhattacharjee's Wired feature "How a Remote Town in Romania Has Become Cybercrime Central" tells the curious story of Râmnicu Vâlcea, a tiny Romanian town with the nickname of "Hackerville," though most of the cybercrooks who live in this mosseisley aren't really hackers — they're phishers and fraudsters and launderers and bagmen.

Bhattacharjee paints a picture of a town that specialized in one weird, creative industry due to mysterious forces, the same way that, say, Hollywood became the center of filmmaking. Someone had modest success with online fraud in Râmnicu Vâlcea, and so his friends tried their hands at it, and expertise began to accumulate, until this remote town became a weird anomaly of Western Union outlets and Mercedes dealerships.

Bhattacharjee's contacts — some local cybercops, a dour and uncommunicative crime boss — aren't able to shed more light on the cause of Râmnicu Vâlcea's odd specialization, but between them, they paint a vivid portrait of a strange, Hammetesque burg where crime is the local business, and business is good.

Driving past a block of low-rise buildings with neatly trimmed hedges, Stoica notes a couple of apartments owned by people currently under investigation. "I don't know if the people of Râmnicu Vâlcea are too smart or too stupid," Stoica says grimly. "They talk a lot to each other. One guy learns the job from another. They ask their high school friends: 'Hey, do you want to make some money? I want to use you as an arrow.' Then the arrow learns to do the scams himself."

It's not so different from the forces that turn a neighborhood into, say, New York's fashion district or the aerospace hub in southern California. "To the extent that some expertise is required, friends and family members of the original entrepreneurs are more likely to have access to those resources than would-be criminals in an isolated location," says Michael Macy, a Cornell University sociologist who studies social networks. "There may also be local political resources that provide a degree of protection."

Online thievery as a ticket to the good life spread from the early pioneers to scores of young men, infecting Râmnicu Vâlcea's social fabric. The con artists were the ones with the nice cars and fancy clothes–the local kids made good. And just as in Silicon Valley, the clustering of operations in one place made it that much easier for more to get started. "There's a high concentration of people offering the kinds of services you need to build a criminal scheme," says Gary Dickson, an FBI agent who worked in Bucharest from 2005 to 2010. "If your specialty is auction frauds, you can find a money pick-up guy. If you're a money pick-up guy, you can find a buyer for your services."

How a Remote Town in Romania Has Become Cybercrime Central

(Image: Nick Waplington/Wired)