In September 2014, I wrote about receiving a package of $500 in counterfeit U.S. currency from an unknown sender, after mentioning in a blog post about a rash of funny money resellers flooding underground cybercrime markets. Last week, U.S. authorities announced the arrest of a Texas man charged with leading the international counterfeit currency operation from a location in the Republic of Uganda.
U.S. prosecutors say 27-year-old Ryan Andrew Gustafson – a.k.a. “Jack Farrel” and “Willy Clock” — is a U.S. citizen currently residing in Kampala, Uganda. Gustafson was arrested on Dec. 16 by Ugandan authorities and charged with conspiracy, counterfeiting, and unlawful possession of ammunition.
The defendant and his alleged accomplices are suspected of passing approximately $270,000 in fake U.S. currency in Uganda. In total, Ugandan authorities say they seized some $1.8 million in funny money from Gustafson’s operation.
The U.S. Secret Service, which investigates currency counterfeiting, said the investigation began in December 2013 when agents were alerted to the passing of counterfeit notes at retail stores and businesses in the Pittsburgh area. A press release from the Justice Department outlines the rest of the investigation:
“Agents determined that an individual identified as J.G. had passed these notes and was renting a postal box at The UPS Store on Pittsburgh’s South Side. On Feb 19, 2014, law enforcement learned that J.G. received three packages addressed from Beyond Computers, located in Kampala, Uganda. Agents executing a search warrant on the packages found $7,000 in counterfeit $100, $50 and $20 FRNs located in two hidden compartments within the packaging envelopes. A fingerprint on a document inside one of the packages was identified as belonging to Ryan Andrew Gustafson.”
“The Secret Service subsequently worked with Ugandan authorities to identify the source of the counterfeit [cash]. Their efforts led to A.B., who admitted to sending the packages, explaining that an American named “Jack Farrel,” and another person, provided him the counterfeit notes to ship. Based on information provided by A.B., the Secret Service used facial recognition to identify Jack Farrel as Ryan Andrew Gustafson.”
The government says Gustafson sold the bills through the Tor Carding Forum, a cybercrime shop that is unreachable from the regular Internet. Rather, visiting the Tor Carding Forum requires the visitor to route his communications through Tor, a free software-based service that helps users maintain anonymity by obfuscating their true location online.
Willy Clock’s phony currency wasn’t only available via Tor. By the middle of 2014, ads for his funny money were showing up on regular, Internet-based cybercrime forums. One reseller of Willy Clock’s notes even set up his own sales thread on Reddit.
Once again, it appears that sloppy operational security contributed to an arrest of an alleged bad guy. According to the government’s complaint (PDF), the email address that Gustafson provided on his U.S. passport application was the same one he allegedly used to maintain a Facebook account under the Jack Farrel alias. Investigators found that Gustafson also used the same Internet address to access his real Facebook page and the Farrel account. Another Facebook page tied to the Jack Farrel identity says the accused was in Uganda as a project associate at the U.N. refugee shelter program.