Four months later, on October 26, 2004, Albert organized an online meeting of top users. By the end of the day, "Operation Firewall" had ensnared 28 ShadowCrew members. The feds turned up more than 1.7 million stolen card numbers.

And Albert had found a new career. The Secret Service agreed to pay him $75,000 annually as a hacker/consultant. "He was doing what he loves to do," Palomino says. "And he was doing it legally with the government's consent."

Back in Miami, Jonathan James was struggling to readjust to life after serving six months of house arrest for hacking NASA.

Jonathan James hacked into NASA when he was 16.
Courtesy of the James family
Jonathan James hacked into NASA when he was 16.
Albert Gonzalez stole hundreds of millions of credit card numbers.
Albert Gonzalez stole hundreds of millions of credit card numbers.

At least one computer company offered employment afterward. But Jonathan wasn't interested. "That would have required actually, you know, showing up for work," Bobby says.

Soon after, the boy violated his probation by smoking pot. That earned him a four-month term in a Liberty City halfway house.

On February 10, 2002, breast cancer killed Joanne James. Jonathan, always moody, became depressed. In late March 2002, after violating probation again, he was sentenced to a six months at Three Springs, a youth facility outside Tuskegee, Alabama, where he was kept away from newspapers, books, and computers. The 19-year-old clashed regularly with guards. He was one of two white inmates in the facility, his dad says.

On New Year's Eve 2003, he was walking home from a party when a cop stopped him, suspecting he might have drugs. He didn't, but a speeding ticket had lapsed while he was in the halfway house, and he was booked overnight into Miami-Dade County Jail.

When Bobby picked him up at 10 the next morning, the young man said, "Dad, I'm never going to jail again. Never."

After his prison term, Jonathan grew closer to Chris Scott, who had earned a GED after dropping out of Palmetto Senior High. The pair drank, played Ping-Pong, and hacked. They also stayed in touch with Albert, who had bought a $118,500 condo off Bird Road.

Albert had already re-entered the world of illegal hacking — even as he infiltrated online gangs for the Secret Service. It wasn't long before he talked the two friends into helping him.

Their first big hack for Albert came in 2003, when Chris helped him break through an unprotected wireless system at BJ's Wholesale Club.

The next year, according to one federal indictment, Chris and "J.J." — probably Jonathan James — began "wardriving," as hackers call it, up and down U.S. 1 in Kendall. They looked for big companies' wireless systems on the thoroughfare and then hacked in to steal credit card data. On one of these tours, they hacked the OfficeMax on SW 109th Street.

Albert, meanwhile, recruited an itinerant hacker named Damon Patrick Toey to move into his condo. Damon had begun stealing credit cards online as an 18-year-old in Virginia, where he lived with ten other relatives in a tiny apartment. His mother was absent, "out partying every night and drinking," according to court documents. Albert offered Damon free room and board in exchange for help stealing data; his attorney later said the younger man was a virtual slave, trapped in the condo with no car or money.

By 2007, Albert, with varying degree of help from Chris, Jonathan, and Damon — and a "sniffer" program, written by Stephen, that found weaknesses in security systems — had hacked a staggering array of companies: TJX Companies, which owns the T.J. Maxx and Marshalls chains; Dave & Buster's; Sports Authority; Citibank; a corporate payroll company called Heartland Payment Systems; and others. They worked with two mysterious, powerful hackers in Russia who helped direct them to targets.

After the gang members stole customers' credit card numbers, they had two options. With some of the data, they made fake cards and used them to withdraw cash from ATMs in Miami and elsewhere.

But the vast majority were fenced online. To sell the cards, Albert had hooked up with a 25-year-old Ukrainian named Maksym Yastremskiy, known online as "maksik." Maksym bought cards in bulk and then laundered Albert's payments through a site called eGold before depositing money into Latvian bank accounts.

In chats, Albert marveled at media coverage of his crimes. "I'm surprised [this latest theft] wasn't on the news, every hack i've made is on the news heh," he typed.

With his profits, Albert soon moved with his girlfriend into the swanky National Hotel, leaving Damon to toil in the shabby condo. He leased a 2006 BMW 300i and threw a $75,000 birthday party for himself. He made plans to invest in Stephen's dream project: a New York rock club.

Jonathan James wasn't living that life. He and his brother Josh lived rent-free at their childhood home, which their mother had left them when she died. Their dad had moved into his own apartment in South Beach. If his son was profiting from Albert's crimes, Bobby didn't see much evidence. "Jonathan took living with no cash to a new extreme," he says. "He was even scarfing wireless internet from the neighbors."

On July 25, 2007, a team of Secret Service agents huddled inside a posh resort in Kemer, a seaside town in southwestern Turkey. Across the hall, Turkish secret agents slipped into a luxury suite and grabbed a Lamborghini laptop.

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