Members of a criminal group with links to Cosa Nostra allegedly succeeded in "cloning" an online branch of the Banco di Sicilia and were preparing to remove funds from an account belonging to the Sicilian regional government, officials said.
With the complicity of two bank employees and using stolen computer files, codes and passwords, the organisation managed to penetrate the bank's information systems, said Mario Bo, director of the organised crime unit of the Palermo police mobile squad.
"They carried out successful technical trials a few days ago" and were able to enter the bank's system, Bo said in a telephone interview. The accomplices on the bank staff would switch off the bank's personal computer at a prearranged time so that the "clone" could take over its role, he said. Technicians of the national carrier Telecom Italia also assisted the criminals, police said.
The group allegedly was planning to steal 264 billion lire from the bank, officials said. The account contained European Union structural funds for regional development, and the money was to be transferred to a bank in the Bologna area, and from there, to bank accounts abroad, investigators said in a prepared statement.
One of the possible destinations of the stolen money was the branch of a Portuguese bank, the Banco Espirito Santo e Comercial of Lisbon, in Lausanne, Switzerland, according to the Italian news agency AGI.
Another foreign bank involved was the Vatican's Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR). Telephone intercepts indicated that the group was looking for accomplices on the staff of the Vatican bank to help them conceal the stolen money, officials said. "They wanted to transfer funds into accounts at the Vatican bank, in which case it would have been impossible for the Italian state to recover them," Bo said.
"The final destination of the money was abroad," said Francesco Gratteri, head of the police Central Operational Service (SCO) in Rome, which coordinated the investigation. "Members of the group spoke of several banks, including institutions in Portugal and Belgium," Gratteri said in a telephone interview.
Police reportedly learned of the operation from informants who heard rumours that a criminal gang was seeking the assistance of dishonest bank directors to help them pull off their virtual heist. An undercover police officer posing as a bank manager obligingly offered his services.
Police initially intended to monitor the first part of the criminal operation without making arrests but decided to intervene when they learned from telephone taps that the gang was planning to follow it up with a series of simultaneous online raids on the Banco di Sicilia, which could have netted more than 1 trillion lire, SCO director Gratteri said.
The operation has implications for the security of online and telephone banking services, although it could not have been carried out successfully without the complicity of the Banco di Sicilia staff, officials said. "Security experts will have something to reflect on," said Bo, of the Palermo police.
Police identified the ringleader of the gang as Antonio Orlando, 48, described as being close to one of Palermo's leading Mafia families and with previous arrests for fraud, money laundering and receiving stolen property. "The operation was certainly authorised by the Mafia, because here in Sicily any operation of economic importance requires the Mafia's permission," Bo said. "The Mafia definitely had an interest in it."
"The new economy must be protected so that it can grow in complete legality," Giuseppe Lumia, chairman of the parliamentary anti-Mafia commission, said in a prepared statement. "The recent creation of a register of current accounts and banking operations is the best indication of this. If with a simple touch of a button one can transfer huge sums online, with the touch of another button the judiciary and the police will be able to follow the movements of suspect assets."