By Dan Goodin in San Francisco
18th September 2007
Having already done time in prison, Max Butler - aka Max Vision - went
to great extremes to cloak his new and allegedly-illegal activities from
prying eyes. But court documents filed in a case charging him with five
new counts of fraud suggest that despite the care he took, much of his
undoing came at his own hands - and the hands of associates he trusted
The hacker, who in 2001 pleaded guilty to unleashing a worm that
accessed computers at a US Air Force base, employed a "killswitch" on
his PC that allowed him to destroy incriminating data at a moment's
notice, according to an affidavit.
"If Butler is within reach of his computer, he needs only 'two
keystrokes' to destroy the evidence on the computer," Christopher
Aragon, an associate of Butler's who was arrested in May for identity
theft, told investigators.
The San Francisco native also kept two residences. One was allegedly
reserved for conducting illegal hacking, such as breaking into data
processing centers and financial institutions. It was rented under a
false name - in at least one case "Daniel Chance" - and paid in advance
by a money order signed by a person who worked for Butler.
And he maintained at least four online identities, including Iceman,
Aphex, Digits and Darkest. While he allegedly used some of the handles
to openly engage in the trafficking of stolen credit cards, he worked
hard to keep a clean reputation for Iceman. He used the ID in public
forums on Cardersmarket, a website he allegedly operated that offered
information and discussions concerning various forms on online fraud.
Follow the Credit
For a while, the secrecy worked well. Butler, according to court
documents, would largely work in obscurity as he used large antennas to
pull sensitive data transmitted over Wi-Fi networks. By limiting what
associates and outsiders knew about him and his activities, he made it
hard for authorities to build a case against him.
Then, though a combination of bad luck and poor judgment, Butler's
enterprise began to unravel. In May, Aragon was arrested in New Port
Beach, California for allegedly using counterfeit American Express gift
cards to buy about $13,000 worth of designer purses in a single day. He
is awaiting trial.
This was a problem for Butler, according to court documents, because
Aragon was one of the people who bought credit card numbers Butler
"Aragon's group would manufacture or re-encode credit cards with the
stolen credit card information and have his 'crew' use those cards to
make in-store purchases," the 28-page affidavit alleges. Much of the
merchandise was then sold on eBay by an user who went under the name
Following the arrest, Butler went so far as to flee San Francisco for
Vancouver and discard a cell phone that linked him to Aragon. But
according to the affidavit, Butler made some crucial mistakes. For one,
he used a prepaid credit card that had been purchased by Aragon during
his stint in Vancouver. And a few days later, he used it to buy a new
Less Than Confidential Informant
An even bigger mistake, according to the documents, was Butler's
misplaced trust in several unnamed associates. According to chat logs
supplied by a source identified only as "Confidential Informant #2",
Butler - using one of his anonymous online personae - "recounted that he
threw away his cell phone, among other things, to distance himself from
Aragon following Aragon's arrest."
Butler passed plenty of other incriminating comments to CI#2.
"So obviously I am digits also," he told the informant during one online
chat in which Butler used his Iceman identity. "It is a pain in the ass
trying to keep that separate from people i know an [sic] trust and like
such as yourself. Anyway reasoning is, iceman is legal. digits is
breaking the law. i assumed if i could keep it separate there would be
no legal leg to stand on for coming after 'me' as the forum admin."
By early June, agents from the US Secret Service's San Francisco field
office had begun surveillance of a house where Butler and his longtime
girlfriend lived. Over the next two months, agents continued to trail
him in cars, lobbies and elevators until finally they were able to
confirm the location of the apartment he used for hacking.
Butler seemed to know something was going wrong. He cut the long, brown
pony tail that had been a prominent part of his physical appearance for
years. And he began phasing out many of his aliases, including Iceman
and Digits. He also recruited new individuals for various roles within
Despite this, he continued to use the Aphex ID in forums to discuss
various topics related to credit card fraud. In a posting dated August
16, for instance, he wrote about the use of "skimmers," which are used
to read and record credit card information. A few days earlier, Aphex
had warned users against a former member named Zebra, who was now said
to be a confidential informant."
Perhaps Butler's biggest undoing was his continued confidence in CI#2,
which continued until August 30.
King of the Carders
Authorities' account of Butler fleshes out a dichotomy between
ultra-secretive paranoia and a careless brazenness that in many ways
mirrors the carder culture Butler sought to lead.
Last week, just two days after the unsealing of Butler's indictment,
carder boards were buzzing with comments warning people to be careful
and accusing certain members of snitching.
"So for all members of [Cardersmarket] if u wish to run to CM and delet
ur PMs, ... they are gone, AND I AM 100% SURE A BACK UP COPY WAS
ALLREADY MADE BY the 2 admins of CM," a user going by the name Achilous
wrote in a forum hosted by Cardingzone.org. "Will not say names because
i don't like acusing people."
The screed, with its poor spelling and grammar, came just hours after
private messages and the vast majority of the site, were taken offline.
And yet the steady stream of postings on other carder sites advertising
the sale of stolen credit cards has barely let up since word last week
that Butler was arrested. For instance, at time of writing, the credit
card forum on real-forum.net was filed with fresh postings advertising
stolen numbers for between $3 and $9 apiece.
"The worry, it seems, is just more of a hassle factor worry that they'll
have to move their message board forum," said Dan Clements, president of
CardCops, a division of the Affinion Group that monitors online forums
for stolen credit card information. "This is a global problem that will
take global solutions. I don't really see people worrying about getting
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