Agents at the U.S. Secret Service unmasked 28 people who thought they were safe behind anonymous identities and charged them in connection with alleged ID Theft activities.

The U.S. Secret Service announced that arrests were made in eight states and six countries stemming from the investigation of public bulletin boards that were the focal point of talk about identity theft schemes.

Members of three computer bulletin boards communities, ShadowCrew, Carderplanet and Darkprofits, were identified in a joint operation called "Operation Firewall." The investigation was a joint operation of the Secret Service, the U.S. Department of Justice, foreign law enforcement agencies and investigators from the financial services industry.

Bruce Townsend, deputy assistant director for investigations at the Secret Service, said the arrests are just the beginning.

"We'll continue our investigation and we have, pursuant to court order, seized quite a bit of information. We'll be looking at that and we'll continue to pursue people who steal other people's information," he said.

The activities at Shadowcrew were profiled in a September 2002 internetnews.com story The Great Credit Card Bazaar. Soon after that story appeared, members of Shadowcrew launched a Denial of Service attack against internetnews.com and demanded that the story be removed. The story was not removed and officials of Jupitermedia contacted law enforcement officials who opened an investigation.

Members of the bulletin boards openly discussed techniques for online fraud. Typical messages were offers of stolen credit cards numbers. Many of the threats related experiences with phishing and other forms of identity theft.

Board members claimed they were safe from prosecution because they used anonymous retailers and proxies to hide their identities. Many openly boasted that they could never be found.

The investigation was a collaboration by "nearly thirty domestic and foreign Secret Service offices and their global law enforcement counterparts," said W. Ralph Basham, Secret Service director, in a statement. "These suspects targeted the personal and financial information of ordinary citizens as well as the confidential and proprietary information of companies engaged in e-commerce."

Officials allege those arrested were responsible for losses of $4.3 million to the financial services industry, through the theft of credit card information used to make illegal purchases, as well as trafficking at least 1.7 million stolen credit card numbers.

Those three sites are no longer in business. Two of them, www.carderplanet.com and www.darkprofit.com, come back blank on a Web search, but the third one, www.ShadowCrew.com, is open, thanks to a clever twist pulled by the Secret Service.

The site's home page features a large logo of the U.S. Secret Service with a line through the words "For Those Who Wish To Play In The Shadows...." Underneath is a statement by the Secret Service saying several arrests have been made, "with many more to follow," the site states, along with a list of charges being filed against the ShadowCrew members under arrest: Conspiracy, access device fraud, fraud with identity documents and fraud and related activity in connection with computers.

At press time, the site's online forum was still open for review. A thread in the board's Lounge section mentions a DoS attack against the site two weeks ago. The last post, dated Wednesday by one of its members, incorrectly states: "I'm just happy to see we're all still up and running!!!! Keep up the good work guys."

John Ashcroft, U.S. Attorney General, issued a statement on the arrests, saying "This indictment strikes at the heart of an organization that is alleged to have served as a one-stop marketplace for identity theft."

The popularity in the underworld of ID theft might have given the three groups more attention than they were seeking. According to urban legend resource site Snopes.com, both Darkprofits.com and ShadowCrew were the victims of "Joe-jobs" -- a term for spam that is forged to show it comes from another site -- from pranksters pretending to be members of Darkprofits and ShadowCrew.

It's uncertain, as officials from the Secret Service were unavailable at press time, whether any of these "Joe-jobs" were used as evidence in the operation, but it's unlikely. In a statement, agents stated they had court-authorized transcripts of internal communications, transactions and practices used by the three crews and other criminal organizations, for a total of 2 terabytes of information.

"Our investigation was reviewed by a court to make sure that the information we were presenting for the indictments and the complaints upon which some of the arrests were based, were in fact based on probable cause," Townsend said. "We, the Secret Service, don't want to get the wrong suspects any more than anyone else. We feel very confident that did not happen."