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The Curious case of Prosenjit Hazra - Part 3

Read Part 1 and Part 2

Part 3: Macanos Hangba

It was a sultry morning as he got into the newly opened Dubai Metro service, Macanos wondered why Dubai was so late in introducing metros. His own hometown, Bangkok, though much worse in terms of traffic than Dubai, had a metro network since quite some time. The reason for all these thoughts was simply that he was running late for his meeting and could not afford to be late. This was a critical meeting.

Thankfully the metro station opened into the hotel lobby and Macanos reached a good 15 minutes before the appointed time of 9:00 AM. Five minutes to 9:00, a young boy dressed like an American teenager walked in and joined him at his table – “Crimson Carter!” he said extending his hand. Macanos had heard that Internet hackers were mere ‘kids’ but he wasn’t really prepared to actually face a kid with a hoodie on him! This is going to be interesting, he said to himself.

Crimson Carter was the online identity with whom Macanos had been interacting for past several months. Following the arrest of Khan Saheb, his business was in deep trouble and he urgently needed to find ways to revive his trade if he wanted to survive. The business of arms is dirty and you cannot just quit – you make enemies in this business and they are always out to get you, so you got to keep making money – not just to make ends meet but to keep paying to secure your life.

Recent arrests in India hit him hard in two ways – Khan Saheb was a financing conduit to his customers. Militant groups in India’s North East would receive funds siphoned off from government schemes and then use these schemes to pay dealers like Macanos who would supply them arms. On the other hand, Khan being a civil servant could also provide them access to fake identities and opening Bank accounts to move and receive funds. Macanos himself had a fake Indian passport and even the recently launched Aadhar Card. Last time he had crossed the border, he even used an ATM card to withdraw funds from a Bank account earmarked for him by his hosts.

But with this arrest, the Indian intelligence agencies had cut off both – his source of funds and his channel of moving these funds – in one fell swoop! It was then that Macanos, despite his relative apathy to the Islamic terror outfits, started researching more about how they operated. After all, they had perpetrated attacks against America – they must have much superior means of working! It was in this research that he encountered Crimson Carter in a chat forum online and after a parley of emails they agreed to meet in Dubai.

Macanos wasn’t quite sure whether or not to trust Carter, he had in fact delayed this meeting for 3 months in hope of some other way emerging. But time was running out on him, it seemed that the Indian intelligence authorities had gained a lot of headway. Also, some of his ‘customers’ had gotten politically misaligned with the ruling disposition and were being targeted. He had to find other ways of financing his business and moving funds. Carter had supplied him with online passwords for email accounts, fake IDs and even Bank account numbers as a test. In today’s meeting, Macanos was going to be told the ‘hawala code’ which he had saved in an email draft on Proton – an encrypted email service.

To Macanos, all this was a huge education – after all, forget about the Internet, Hacking and Computers – he wasn’t even educated properly on literacy. Macanos was an alias he had acquired during one clandestine smuggling deals, and the name just stuck to him – his real name was Thiounn Mok and he was a Cambodian national.

Thiounn was born in the city of Batambang but by the time he was old enough to understand the world, his parents were exiled [1] to a village in the interiors by the dreaded Khmer Rouge. Then, within an year Thiounn lost his parents when Khmer Rouge executed [2] several ‘weak’ city dwellers unable to contribute to farming in the village. He, being a child, was spared, so was his uncle – his mother’s much younger brother. Thiounn and his uncle, himself 29 years of age, had seen enough bloodshed to believe in any regime – Communists or the Monarch; they were just figuring out ways to keep alive.

So, when Khmer Rouge leadership lost the war with the Vietnamese and were fleeing to Thailand, his uncle hatched a plan to join the entourage and smuggle himself and young Thiounn along with them. Thiounn was 11 when the Khmer Rouge leadership fled the country through his village which bordered the Khao Larn camp in Trat Province of Thailand [3].  On reaching Trat, they broke away from the Rouge party and with the help of local fishermen escaped to Pattaya. Once in Pattaya, they changed names, addresses and his uncle changed jobs as often as he could, always afraid of getting detected and extradited back.

Young Thiounn hence never had the luck to get a formal education and the only company he had was amongst poor kids from brothels – his education was in crime, and arms dealing came naturally as a career choice. His uncle, having lost his youth in running away from persecution and then trying to evade detection was so lost in his own insecurities that he didn’t notice when Thiounn grew up into a bulky body building teenager on the outside, but a hardened criminal on the inside.

Somewhere along the way, they just went separate ways – his uncle still languishing taking up odd jobs in Pattaya, while Thiounn carved out a life for himself in Bangkok as an arms dealer. Initially, he would keep visiting his uncle and even tried to show gratitude by helping him financially and asking him to join him in Bangkok, but his uncle would always just remain a drifter, increasingly wanting to return to his homeland. A few years later, when Thiounn visited Pattaya, he couldn’t locate his uncle as he seemed to have moved places – only to discover after some recce, that he had gone back to Cambodia. Thiounn never again contacted him – the anonymity and lack of family ties suited his criminal life anyway. From then on, he never mentioned his name Thiounn to anyone - he was Macanos Hangba.

Macanos looked at Carter and guessed that he was probably 17 or at best 19 years old – this was the age when Macanos had done his first arms deal. It was difficult to place Carter’s nationality – his face covered in a full beard, eyes covered in sunglasses and the hoodie on his head, little of his face was visible – but Macanos could guess that Carter was of South Asian descent; India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. Carter started with giving him the hawala code which turned out to be correct – the first test passed! Macanos also blurted back certain pre-decided codes to establish his identity and then Carter motioned to follow him.

Carter walked outside to the parking lot and motioned him to get into the back seat of a black SUV. As Macanos, opened the door and stepped in to sit, he sensed fear – but it was too late; two hands came from behind, blindfolded him and he felt the nozzle of a pistol being pointed to the temple – a thick voice instructed him to keep his mouth shut to avoid being shot.

Macanos cursed his own negligence, he had apprehensions about the identity of Carter and he knew that meeting someone in a foreign country was fraught with risk of his playing into the enemies’ hands. But it was too late to reminisce – what he wondered now was what would happen next. He had taken a calculated risk when he knew that the meeting would be in Dubai – a country with a heavily controlled law and order system. He was quite sure his meeting and even his entry into the SUV was recorded in the CCTV cameras. If his enemies wanted to get him, Pattaya or Phuket would have been better options – why Dubai?

The car started moving, in between, he had heard some conversation between the kid whom he had met as Carter and the thick voice who commanded him. The kid must have been a non-entity contracted to just meet him and get him to the SUV, it was apparent that the kid was not in the car any longer. No words were spoken for the next several minutes as the car seem to have been cruising at high speeds on the highways of Dubai.

After several minutes, they came to a halt, the felt the pistol being withdrawn from his temple and his blindfold being removed. The door opened and when he looked out, a valet wearing a uniform was standing holding the door – this was an unusual abduction style for Macanos. His abductors stayed in the car as it drove off and the valet let him into a warehouse-like building outside which they stood. Macanos cast an eye on the surrounding, and all he could see in all three directions was the Desert.

They entered the warehouse shed, which seemed like a storage facility for electronics – he could see boxes with images of computers, laptops, printers etc on them. The valet led him to a set of stairs, and he saw glass panelled offices lining up to where they ended. As they reached the top of the stairs, the valet opened a glass door for him and stood outside while ushering him in. The man seated behind the desk rose as Macanos entered and extended his hand – “I apologise for the last 40 minutes of harrowing experience you’ve had Macanos, but this was necessary to secure us.”

Macanos was relieved, it seemed that the bluff was over, this was not an abduction and he may live to see many more suns. The man explained that ‘Crimson Carter’ was not a single individual but a whole organization of hackers who worked in a loose federation. They were all independent – he himself did not know the real identities of all the hackers but he was their quarter-master nevertheless. He managed to get them deals, arrange payments and kept the engine running. Some of them called him the ‘accountant’ which was technically his role in this cartel. When dealing with players like Macanos where payments wouldn’t necessarily come via established banking channels, they wanted to be sure of the identity of the individual giving them business but to keep matters as discrete as possible, they had employed this method of pseudo abduction.

He then explained that things were changing and soon, they may even be able to transact money without much hassle using a new technology called Bitcoins. Many hackers in his network were already asking him to pay them in Bitcoins and asked Macanos if he had any Bitcoins which he can pay them in. Macanos could just blurt out a ‘No’, knowing well that the expressions on his face gave away that he was hearing this name for the first time.

Then they came to the subject – what did Macanos want? Macanos explained his problem that he needed secure means of exchanging information and money with his customers; he wondered if he should ask how he could use this Bitcoin thing, but refrained knowing well that his customers in North East India might be even more unfamiliar with this term than him. He did not want to add any more complexity to the chain which was already weakening after Khan Saheb’s arrest.

The solution was simple, he was explained - the hacking group would break into email accounts of real people, steal their identities and use this information to create fictitious bank accounts which can then be used to transfer stolen money without the authorities ever noticing. He was told about a pricing model where the rate changed depending on the nationality of the victim – stealing an American identity would be the priciest – given that the Americans had superior technology to detect such hacks, the cheapest would be Bangladeshi or Pakistani nationals followed by Indians and then the Burmese and Thai.

Macanos was sold – it sounded simple enough and very similar to what Khan Saheb had provided. Instead of a fake identity, he would use a stolen identity from the hackers. If they could supply an Indian identity, this would be the lowest friction route to solving his problems; he was familiar with the modus operandi to use an Indian identity to transact. A deal was struck, an Indian identity it would be – Macanos was told they’d get back to him with a few names over IRC in the next few days. Some advance in US Dollars had to be made the next day at the same hotel lobby where he met the kid today and the rest would have to be arranged in Bangkok.

... to be continued.

Photo by Drew McKechnie on Unsplash

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