He has plenty of luxury wristwatches, electronic devices and perfumes that make his neighbors wonder how he purchased them given that he is unemployed. Once you ask him about it, you expect him to be offended or upset, but on the contrary, Ans, 35, brags about how he buys goods online with stolen credit cards after hacking the cards’ secret information.
Al-Monitor spoke to Ans over the phone: “Each (online) shopping site has a large database for credit-card numbers. After hacking into the website, we get personal identification data and the 16 digits that are specific to each card. We use these numbers to purchase goods from other websites. For instance, I pretend to be Alex from Britain. I buy stuff online from this website and I send it via mail to Gaza,” he said.
Ans, not his real name, said that hundreds of other people take advantage of these hacking methods due to the deteriorating economic situation. He said that he knows people who are as young as 20 and own luxury cars, which they did not purchase through shopping websites. They hack into the Internet Protocol (IP) address of routers to access communications accounts and make calls to golden numbers — international toll numbers set up by hackers — for hours. They receive huge amounts of money for each minute, which is then transferred to their bank accounts. One of these young men said he recently made $20,000 and was able to restore his worn-out house.
Ans said that he always buys computers, phones, perfumes and watches from all over the world and sometimes he sells the credit-card information to ordinary citizens for $20 per card.
Ans believes that his name is included on the Interpol blacklist as he has been practicing electronic piracy for a long time. He fell silent for a moment and then said that he feels guilty and he is convinced that what he is doing is religiously forbidden, but his financial condition is dire. He is also responsible for a large family, which forces him to do what he does. Ans said that he feels comfortable when he learns that some of the people he steals from usually file lawsuits against the companies and manage to recover their money.
“We are not prosecuted in the Gaza Strip. No complaints are filed against us since international relations have been severed with the Gaza government. However, we as hackers do not hide what we do. Everybody knows it,” he said.
Gaza Strip, a lawless zone
According to a number of international reports, Gaza has a number of hackers whose abilities are not to be underestimated. Some electronic companies even consider Gaza to be a trial field to test the safety and effectiveness of protection programs.
Is Gaza a lawless zone for those involved in international criminal cases, such as electronic theft?
According to Maj. Gen. Maher al-Ramli, the director general of Interpol, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Interior in Gaza, this is not true.
“Those who wish to file a complaint from any country, whether from Europe, the United States or the Arab world, can communicate with us and send their complaint. All criminal cases related to credit-card theft, murder or child custody are being followed up on,” he said. Ramli added that the problem lies in the countries that refuse to deal with them, by rejecting any bilateral agreements due to the international blockade imposed on the Gaza government.
Ramli confirmed to Al-Monitor that in many cases, some of the credit-card hackers have been caught. However, the number of those arrested remains very small compared to the many widespread cases of hacking. The reason behind this fact is that many credit card owners do not file any complaints as there are no special laws in Gaza that protect against electronic crime.
At the Interpol office, Al-Monitor has been informed about a complaint from an Arab Gulf state, where the credit-card owner stated that his card had been used to settle traffic tickets for 52 private cars, amounting to $12,000. The complaint includes the IP of the hacker and shows the correspondence between the Interpol office in Gaza and the Palestinian Ministry of Communications. Thus, the IP of the hacker was detected and it turned out that he lives in Gaza. He was referred to the public prosecutor.
Ramli said that the accused cannot be referred to the courts of the country that submitted the complaint because there are no agreements with Gaza in this regard. However, investigations with the accused are still ongoing. It should be noted that in the traffic-tickets case, the accused said that his IP was stolen, but the charges against him have not been dropped.
Ramli has urged the world’s countries to file complaints to his office, and said it would be prepared to cooperate to prosecute criminals. Ramli regrets that some international complaints about stolen credit cards have been submitted through personal connections rather than in an official manner. He stressed that Gaza’s Interpol police have managed to return 15 stolen cars from Egypt, as they communicate on a daily basis with the Interpol office there.
For his part, the spokesman for the Ministry of Interior in Gaza, Islam Shahwan, told Al-Monitor that the reason behind the increasing number of hackers in the Gaza Strip is the fact that they have a good reputation, as they use their skills against the Israeli occupation, and therefore they are untouched since they are seen as the popular electronic resistance.
Shahwan feels that the absence of electronic crime laws implies that there is no accountability for such crimes. He stressed that a draft law for electronic transactions has been submitted before the Legislative Council for consideration and approval.
He also stressed that some of the accused in these cases have been arrested according to the law against trespassing. He said that most of these robberies target US citizens as the banking firewall is weak there. He added that a circular has been recently issued requiring all internet cafes not to accept any users with piracy software.
Affecting the economy
In turn, the regional director of the Palestinian Information Technology Association of Companies (PITA), Youssef Shaat, said that Gaza lacks a legal framework that would protect intellectual property and electronic transactions.
In an interview with Al-Monitor in his office, Shaat said, "Hackers have this misconception that what they do is a genius and novel achievement. Thus, we are required to spread awareness of the negative implications of such acts on the victims.”
Shaat feels that the political situation and the division have had a negative impact on the effectiveness of such a law. Thus, there is a need to draft an electronic law and start the process of intellectual property protection.
He also stressed that these thefts are affecting the local economy, warding off those interested in investing in information and technology projects in Gaza, especially as the Gaza Strip is not electronically protected at the level of banks and commercial transactions.
He said that banks are urged to be up to date regarding the new protection systems of electronic credit cards. Also, banks are required to renew their firewalls in order to reduce the chances of hacking. Shaat stressed that the number of hackers in Gaza is high due to the absence of laws, as hackers have the freedom to carry out their thefts. However, he hopes to be mistaken.
Asmaa al-Ghoul is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse, and a journalist from the Rafah refugee camp based in Gaza.
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