RAMNICU VALCEA, Romania — It's easy to tell which kids in this town have helped to make it a global center for criminal hacking and Internet scams.
They're the pupils who come to school wearing the best clothes and gold jewelry in a region of Romania where chickens are raised in yards and roads are full of potholes.
"In our high school, almost everyone in the 11th and 12th grade did it," said Alina, 22, who worked for a man who bilked Americans and others out of their money online by offering for sale products that did not exist.
Alina, who asked for anonymity out of fear that she would be exposed for criminal actions, said she didn't feel bad about it at the time.
"You rarely feel you're doing any harm when your victim is somewhere across the ocean," she said.
Cybercrime is in the news lately after Target admitted that a massive data hack may have compromised the personal information of as many as 110 million customers.
And Reuters reported Sunday that upscale retailer Neiman Marcus has also been the victim of a security breach of credit card customer information. Security firms said the thefts may have originated in Eastern Europe, where Romania has been a focal point of international cyber-fraud investigators for years now.
The FBI and U.S. Secret Service have been involved in numerous arrests of Romanians who target Americans. In response to the rise, in October the Council of Europe — a body that oversees cooperation between European countries — picked the Romanian capital of Bucharest for its latest cybercrime program office.
FBI instructors have trained nearly 600 Romanian investigators in combating cybercrime, according to the U.S. Embassy.
In announcing the creation of the new office, Romanian President Traian Basescu said he hoped repentant scammers might help police track down cybercriminals.
"Maybe we'll manage to bring our performing hackers to the good side of the barricade," he said.
Romania investigators say there were about 1,000 cases of cybercrime in 2012. Police in Ramnicu Valcea, a town of 120,000 people, say every year they arrest around 100 people on cybercrime charges.
Worldwide, individuals and businesses lose around $397 billion a year due to hacking, according to Europol.
Virgil Spiridon, the head of the Romanian National Police's Cybercrime Unit, say the cases take years to litigate because of the difficulty in catching sophisticated hackers. Basescu says his country cannot hope to end the enterprise because it doesn't have the resources to do it.
Police in Romania report that 80% of the cyber attacks originating from Romania target American citizens and companies. The U.S. Embassy in Bucharest has estimated that Romanian cybercriminals steal $1 billion every year by hacking American computers.
The scams tend to involve Americans who share financial and personal information with people they think are legitimate sellers of products. Common schemes include the selling of fake cars and computers or "skimming" — getting someone to reveal financial and password information that is used to fabricate an ATM card and drain a victim's bank account or rack up charges on a credit card.
"Credit card and internet fraud remain among the most common crimes affecting foreigners in Romania," the U.S. Embassy website warns travelers to Romania.
Among the latest:
• In May, the U.S. Justice Department extradited Romanian nationals Cristea Mircea, 30, Ion Pieptea, 36, and Nicolae Simion, 37, on charges of running a multimillion dollar cyber fraud scheme targeting customers of U.S.-based online marketplaces.
The trio ran ads on eBay, Cars.com and AutoTrader.com for non-existent cars, boats and motorcycles priced between $10,000 and $45,000 and sent potential buyers fraudulent certificates of title and links to fake websites for dealerships that they claimed held the vehicles. Once a purchase was agreed upon, the victims were sent fake invoices from Amazon Payments, PayPal, or other online payment services.The men allegedly stole more than $2 million.
• In November 2012, prosecutors from the Romanian Directorate for Investigating Organized Crime and Terrorism arrested 16 people individuals suspected of being members of the credit card fraud ring that netted $25 million. Those arrested were accused of hacking into the computer systems of gas stations and grocery stores and installing computer applications that intercept credit card transaction data.
• In October, the directorate arrested members of a cybercrime gang accused of stealing information from 50,000 credit cards across 24 countries.
Romania's anti-hacking police force has risen from a handful of officers to 280 investigators in seven years. But the police might as well be fighting the tide, said Raoul Chiesa, a former Italian hacker who now is an information technology security consultant.
"In Romania, you have brilliant minds and excellent universities while, on the other hand, it's not easy to find a good job," he said.
"I saw the same issue in Bulgaria, for example, in China, in India. When you are a young guy, and some bad guy offers you money in order to do something that you know how to do and are able to do that brings a very low risk, it's not always that easy to say no."
Hacking has triggered a boomlet in Ramnicu Valcea, where the economy has otherwise been depressed for years.
Scammers drive fancy news cars on pothole-filled roads. They frequent a mall packed with expensive stores as well as the nightclubs and beauty centers that have sprouted up amid decaying communist-era factories and tall grey apartment blocks.
Alina said she was playing a video game in an Internet café when a man approached her and asked if she might translate an e-mail into English for him. The e-mail was part of a scam involving the fake sale of digital equipment.
The more she participated in the scams, the harder it was to stop. Once she earned $4,100 for a single job, she said, a fortune in a country where the annual per capita income is $13,000 a year.
Her family used the money for home improvements and school expenses after Alina confessed her hacking to her mother and quit the business, she said.
"I realized that I was much happier as a normal kid," she said.