Teenage GhostMarket kingpin sentenced to jail

Nicholas Webber, who ran the multi-million pound GhostMarket e-crime forum and was involved in a Zeus botnet, has been given a prison sentence of five years
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor on

A Hampshire teenager who set up an e-crime forum that traded in hundreds of thousands of stolen credit card details has been jailed for five years.

Nicholas Webber, 19, an ex-public schoolboy, was sentenced by Judge John Price at Southwark Crown Court on Tuesday, after admitting in December to being the administrator of GhostMarket.net.

Teenager cybercrime fraud

Teenage cybercrime boss Nicholas Webber has been jailed for his part in an e-crime forum in which he earned £40,000. Photo credit: Metropolitan Police

"You are a very clever young man, very good at computers," said Judge Price in his summing up. "I've read your school reports."

Price said that the GhostMarket forum had been involved with fraud "on a massive scale", offering "sophisticated advice on how to hack into computers".

The forum offered credit card data, credit-card verification programs, and malicious software and tutorials for compromising computers and stealing data. Police said they had recovered 132,073 stolen credit card numbers, which could have resulted in losses of some £15m.

"The GhostMarket crime forum was used by thousands of computer criminals and fraudsters operating worldwide," detective inspector Colin Wetherill told reporters at the court.

Webber, working with other young people who helped run the crime forum, built and maintained a network of compromised computers using a variant of the Zeus information-stealing Trojan prevalent in November 2009. The botnet, which consisted of 15,147 computers in 159 countries, was put up for rent, said Wetherill.

Were you very much older, your sentences would have to be much longer.
– Judge John Price

"Despite their youth, the scale of the offending found through the forum was extremely serious," Wetherill told ZDNet UK at the court.

Webber personally made approximately £40,000, the court heard. Webber's defence barrister, Tyrone Smith, told the court the forum "was more akin to Crimebook than Facebook", and "an online Open University for criminals". Nevertheless, Smith said in mitigation that Webber had set up the site more for kudos and notoriety than for personal gain.

Webber's first hacking infraction was at the age of 15, when he broke into his school's system and deleted a fellow student's detention record, ZDNet UK understands.

Webber recruited Ryan Thomas, 18, to moderate the forum, which was also moderated by Gary Paul Kelly, 21. At a previous hearing in December, Kelly admitted to providing the platform for the forum, called FastUnix.net, and also the platform for serving and controlling the Zeus malware, called TotalUnix.net. Thomas was sentenced to four years, while Kelly was given five years.

Shakira Ricardo, 21, who had admitted to banking some of the proceeds of the forum, and receiving luxury goods, was sentenced to 18 months. Her partner Samantha Worley, 22, also banked some of the proceeds, and was given a community service order in December.

"I am enormously conscious of the youth of you all," Judge Price said. "You are all very young people, and I take that very much into account. Were you very much older, your sentences would have to be much longer." Half of the sentences of all of the defendants were suspended, while time already served in custody was taken into account.

ZDNet UK understands that the defence teams for Webber, Kelly and Thomas intend to appeal their sentences.

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