You know that long-lost relative you've never heard of in Nigeria who needs you to loan him that 10 grand? The guy on Craigslist who's going to ship you this car at a great price if you just send him some quick cash upfront? That lady who wants to purchase your speakers, and is going to forward some loot to your PayPal account in advance? You ever met any of these strange characters? Probably not--and they probably don't even live where you think they do. According to an article in this month's Wired, a large slice of a global network of cyber-criminals can be traced to a small Romanian town in the foothills of the Transylvanian Alps. Râmnicu Vâlcea, it's called; you know you've arrived when the country road you're driving on-- the kind lined by "crumbling houses with chickens in the front"--gives way to a Mercedes dealership.
Welcome to the seedy world where money literally comes from nothing: "expensive cars choke the streets of Râmnicu Vâlcea’s bustling city center--top-of-the-line BMWs, Audis, and Mercedes driven by twenty- and thirtysomething men sporting gold chains and fidgeting at red lights. I ask my cab driver if these men all have high-paying jobs, and he laughs. Then he holds up his hands, palms down, and wiggles his fingers as if typing on a keyboard. 'They steal money on the Internet,' he says," according to author Yudhijit Bhattacharjee.
"Among law enforcement officials around the world, the city of 120,000 has a nickname: Hackerville," he writes. "Most" of the crooks in town "specialize in ecommerce scams and malware attacks on businesses," work that has apparently "brought tens of millions of dollars into the area over the past decade, fueling the development of new apartment buildings, nightclubs, and shopping centers."
Bhattacharjee describes the town as a place of strange contradictions.
The streets are lined with gleaming storefronts--leather accessories, Italian fashions--serving a demand fueled by illegal income. Near the mall is a nightclub, now closed by police because its backers were shady. New construction grinds ahead on nearly every block. But what really stands out in Râmnicu Vâlcea are the money transfer offices. At least two dozen Western Union locations lie within a four-block area downtown, the company’s black-and-yellow signs proliferating like the Starbucks mermaid circa 2003.
Remember Western Union? Craigslist, notes that one of the ways to "recognize a vehicle scam attempt" is "Payment by Western Union or a money wire is requested."