A journalism student at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas who used the online alias "No" and "MMMM" faces 15 years in prison and $500,000 in fines if she is convicted of hacking charges related to the group "Anonymous."
The Rebel Yell reported that the FBI arrested 20-year-old Mercedes Renee Haefer last week for allegedly participating in distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against PayPal’s website.
In a campaign known as "Operation Payback," members of "Anonymous" succeeded in taking down the online operations of PayPal, MasterCard Worldwide, Visa, Swiss bank PostFinance and others after the companies dropped their financial services to WikiLeaks.
According to an FBI affidavit obtained by The Smoking Gun, federal agents launched an investigation into the attacks against PayPal in early December, after the company contacted the agency. PayPal provided the FBI with eight Internet protocol (IP) addresses that were hosting an Internet relay chat (IRC) site used by "Operation Payback" to organize attacks.
The DDoS attacks against PayPal violated federal laws against "unauthorized and knowing transmission of code or commands resulting in intentional damage to a protected computer system," according to the FBI. The attacks flood websites with meaningless web traffic to slow them down and can sometimes knock websites offline entirely.
Haefer was one of 14 individuals arrested nationwide for participating in the attacks against PayPal. She faces a charge of conspiracy to "commit Intentional Damage to a Protected Computer" and for alleged damage caused by the attack.
In all FBI agents made 35 raids across the US as part of a probe into "coordinated cyber attacks against major companies and organizations," the FBI said, adding that to date more than 75 searches have been carried out.
Anonymous, an international hackers group, rose to fame with a series of attacks on websites linked to the Church of Scientology.
The group gained further prominence after launching retaliatory attacks on companies perceived to be enemies of the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks.
Anonymous sabotaged Turkish sites also last month to protest against Internet censorship.
After the December attacks US federal investigators followed a trail to Europe, Canada and back to the United States as they hunted down hackers who targeted "perceived corporate enemies of WikiLeaks."
The FBI traced Internet protocol addresses for the hackers to Canada and then back to California where a virtual server that was assigned one of the IP addresses used to launch the attacks was housed, media reports said.
A separate German probe into the pro-WikiLeaks attacks found that other commands to launch denial of service attacks on PayPal had come from an IP address assigned to a Texas-based company that hosts servers.
The FBI stressed that the arrests were part of an "ongoing" investigation.
"Today's operational activities were done in coordination with the Metropolitan Police Service in the United Kingdom and the Dutch National Police Agency," said the US statement.
"The FBI thanks the multiple international, federal and domestic law enforcement agencies who continue to support these operations," it said.