Police are struggling to produce computer evidence against an alleged eastern European gang of fraudsters arrested in September for their part in an international conspiracy to defraud banks using the Zeus Trojan.
A plea hearing at Croydon Crown Court was delayed for at least the third time on Thursday, when it emerged that police had still not presented evidence to substantiate their charges of money laundering and conspiracy to defraud.
The trial was put off until March to give police time to prepare their evidence and defence barristers to digest it. Arrested in Essex on 28 September, the defendants are alleged to be part of an international gang.
The Metropolitan Police's Central eCrime Unit (PCeU) is sifting through a mass of computer files for evidence to prove allegations made by banks through the Virtual Taskforce, an intelligence-sharing organisation made up of public and private bodies. Banks including Barclays and HSBC allege that the gang stole £6m from thousands of personal accounts after acquiring people's electronic banking passwords using the Zeus Trojan.
"We've served about 2,000 pages [of evidence]. There's about 2,000 pages to go," PCeU Detective Sergeant Donaghy said.
She said police have secured what they believe is evidence of bank losses amounting to less than the £6m alleged by the banks. But since police now believe the fraud was carried out from July 2009 to September 2010 — three months longer than had first been calculated — they might yet substantiate greater losses.
In September, Metropolitan Police said the £6m alleged bank losses "were likely to grow significantly as the investigation progresses".
Croydon Crown Court heard that the case against the defendants is complex and that the police has had difficulty in obtaining foreign evidence. Some of it had to be translated from Russian. However, one of the defendants has agreed to co-operate with the police investigation and is proving productive, prosecution lawyer Mark Bryant-Heron told the court.
"It's a huge conspiracy. It covers multiple jurisdictions that include Ukraine, Russia, the UK and America. There's an enormous amount of seized media," PCeU's Detective Sergeant Williams said outside the court.
The case is so complex that the court has had trouble setting a trial date. On Thursday, Judge Warwick McKinnon said he will set a trial date in September, even though this may mean the accused will have been in custody for a year before their trial starts. This would extend their custody period beyond the specified limit of pre-trial detention. In addition, some of the accused are expected to deny the charges once they have seen the evidence against them.
"It's a substantial case. The custody time limit was not really designed for a case like this," Judge McKinnon told the court.
ZDNet UK understands that police have yet to catch the ringleader of the international gang. The accused were originally going to be charged with crimes under the Computer Misuse Act, but police have been unable to show that they are responsible for propagating the Zeus Trojan.
The defendants present at court were: Yuriy Korovalenko, a 28-year-old self-employed Ukrainian web designer; Yevhen Kulibaba, a 32-year-old Ukrainian property developer; Karina Kostromina, a 33-year-old unemployed Latvian; Roman Zenyk, a 29-year-old Ukrainian building labourer; Eduard Babaryka, a 26-year-old Belarusian driver; Valerij Milka, a 29-year-old Ukrainian building labourer; Iryna Prakochyk, a 23-year-old unemployed Ukrainian; Ivars Poikans, a 29-year-old Latvian supermarket worker; and Kaspars Cliematnieks, a 24-year-old Latvian supermarket worker. All lived in Chingford, Harlow and Romford, Essex.
Another nine people have been arrested in connection with the investigation. Police said last week they have decided to take no further action against three of those, while five were bailed to return to police in January.
Another defendant, Zurab Revazishvili, a 34-year-old unemployed Georgian from Essex, was sentenced last week at Southwark Crown Court to four months in prison for carrying a false Lithuanian passport. The Crown Prosecution Service said police are trying to find evidence to re-arrest Revazishvili on fraud charges.
Aleksander Kusner, a 27-year-old unemployed Estonian from Essex, is also in custody on conspiracy and money-laundering charges, but did not appear in court on Thursday. All 10 charged will now enter pleas at Croydon on 4 March.