When millions of dollars are stolen in a sophisticated bank robbery, it can sound like a Hollywood heist -- but those crimes are very real. In fact, they're happening in Minnesota and anyone could become a target.
These aren't typical hold-ups -- no masked man pulling a gun on a teller. One took place in an Edina office building, according to the FBI.
Officials say the thieves managed to slip by security to crack open an account, reach in, and swipe nearly $1 million without ever setting foot on the premises.
The money trail led from Edina overseas to Eastern Europe and into Romania -- and one of the culprits was a military officer gone rogue, a former general in the Ukrainian Army.
FBI investigators said it was very troubling to discover a high-ranking member of a "friendly military force" was involved -- especially since they almost got away with it.
Acting on a tip from the FBI, Romanian authorities were able to nab the general and his accomplices while they were bagging the loot after it was wired from the U.S. to a bank in Bucharest.
So what drew a gang of international thieves to set their site on Minnesota and the non-profit Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics? The CEO of Edina-based organization declined to discuss the case, but these sort of heists are happening a lot -- and they're putting some victims out of business.
Officials have seen a 300 percent increase in cases in the last two to three years, but investigators say those targeted are too embarrassed to admit they were hit by a cyber attack because reputations are on the line.
All it takes is for a single employee to open a spam e-mail or accept a fake friend request for a computer network to become infected with bandit software that tip-toes around in search of financial accounts and passwords. One simple click can give away the codes to crack the safe.
Next, the thieves go online to draw funds right out of a business' bank account -- and from the bank's perspective, it looks like their normal customers are logging in.
Brian Krebs is a former Washington Post reporter who rites an online security blog, and he says most of the cases he's written about come from the same region.
"Most of the thieves I've been writing about appear to be based in Ukraine and Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe," Krebs said.
Since moving large sums of money directly from a victim's account to one outside the country can send up red flags, the culprits recruit average people -- referred to as "mules" -- to help them complete the caper without raising suspicions.
FOX 9 Investigator Jeff Baillon spoke with two men who unwittingly got mixed up with cyber crooks. Each had been out of work and posted a resume on a popular job search website, and both eventually got a phone call and offer from what sounded like a legitimate business. They jumped at the chance.
To maintain the ruse, the thieves told their new hires the company is expanding and needs someone to scope out potential office locations, write up proposals and open a bank account. The mules never know the money flowing into the account is stolen.
"Those mules are instructed to go down to their bank to pull the money out in cash and they'll do that, $5-10,000 to pull out in cash," Krebs explained. "Then, they are instructed to wire it overseas via Western Union and money gram."
In one case, a mule got suspicious after learning that thousands of dollars sent to the account had come from the Catholic Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa. When he asked his "employer" about it, he was told not to worry because they were helping to distribute payments to the victims of the church's sex abuse scandal.
In reality, the crooks had looted $600,000 from the Diocese's bank account and spread it between dozens of unsuspecting mules hired to send the cash overseas.
Hundreds of similar cyber heists take place each year. One case began simply because an employee opened an e-mail that claimed to contain a list of coworker year-end bonuses. Spyware was installed with that simple click.
Experts recommend avoiding links in any e-mail you didn't ask for -- especially if you don't recognize the sender. The best way to lock them out is to hit delete.
Cyber thieves are constantly looking for ways to lure people in -- even sending out spam disguised as messages from the FBI.