Sentencing / Post-Conviction

Programmer gets probation in spam scheme instead of 2 years recommended by sentencing guidelines

phone text scam

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Federal sentencing guidelines called for two years in prison for computer expert who wrote a program that helped scammers send millions of spam messages to illegally harvest email addresses and phone numbers, but on Thursday a federal judge in Pittsburgh sentenced him to just two years of probation, the Associated Press reports.

The light sentence likely resulted from Naveed Ahmed’s decision, once caught, to immediately cooperate with authorities in efforts to go after others in the cybercriminal marketplace. Ahmed lost his job was a systems administrator at the University of South Florida, where he was a master’s degree candidate.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jimmy Kitchen argued for a sentence that would deter a “world full of potential computer hackers,” but didn’t object to the probation sentence handed down by Senior U.S. District Judge Maurice Cohill Jr.

Kitchen called Ahmed the “most technically adept” of three men involved in the scheme. Ahmed had advertised his skills on the members-only, a cybercriminal marketplace. Last July the FBI disabled and federal authorities charged 12 people—Ahmed among them—with illegally marketing their skills there.

In an FBI news release last summer when the charges were filed, U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton of the Western District of Pennsylvania, said: “Of the roughly 800 criminal Internet forums worldwide, Darkcode represented one of the gravest threats to the integrity of data on computers in the United States and around the world and was the most sophisticated English-speaking forum for criminal computer hackers in the world.”

The news release described Darkcode as “an online, password-protected forum in which hackers and other cybercriminals convened to buy, sell, trade and share information, ideas, and tools to facilitate unlawful intrusions on others’ computers and electronic devices.”

Ahmed and two others earned $2,000 to $3,000 weekly from September 2011 to February 2013 by facilitating a deluge of unsolicited marketing and pornography spam emails and text messages.

One of his accomplices, Dewayne Watts, of Hernando, Florida, last week received a similar sentence, though he must spend his first six months of probation confined to his home. Ahmed is permitted to continue working with computers, but he will be monitored by probation officers.

Their other accomplice, Phillip Fleitz, of Indianapolis, Indiana, is scheduled for sentencing Monday.

Ahmed wrote the program that helped match cellphone numbers with their carriers, permitting scammers to send unwanted messages. Watts crafted messages saying the victims had won Best Buy gift cards, providing links they could click to receive them—when instead they were routed to Web pages controlled by Internet Cost Per Action networks. Those companies are legal, but the methods Ahmed and his co-conspirators used to drive consumers there are not.

The money paid to Ahmed and others for ill-gotten email addresses went through a Swiss bank account controlled by a thus far unidentified and unindicted co-conspirator, who got a 10 percent cut for laundering the money, Kitchen, the prosecutor, said.

“I know my actions were irresponsible,” Ahmed told the judge. “I had this naive, immature view of being invincible.”

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