WASHINGTON — Secret Service investigators say they are close to gaining a full understanding of the methods hackers used to breach Target's computer systems last December.
But the agency says it could take years to identify the criminals who stole some 40 million debit and credit card numbers of Target shoppers and other personal information from as many as 70 million people in the pre-Christmas breach.
And it may take even longer to bring the offenders to justice. The federal investigation is complicated by the international nature of high-profile digital heists. The perpetrators are likely located overseas, which makes extradition and prosecution difficult. As a result, the Secret Service is focused on monitoring the online activities of its suspects, in hopes that they'll be able to arrest them at an opportune moment, says Ari Baranoff, an assistant special agent in charge with the Secret Service's criminal investigative division.
"We take a lot of pride in having a lot of patience," Baranoff said during a rare sit-down interview with the Associated Press at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "There are individuals we've apprehended that we've known about for 10 years and we're very comfortable indicting these individuals, sitting back and waiting patiently until the opportunity arrives that we can apprehend them."
Target says it can't yet estimate what the breach will cost the company, but some analysts put it at close to half a billion dollars. The total cost of the breach —which also would include losses incurred by banks, consumers and others— could easily reach into the billions of dollars.
Target, which is in the midst of its own investigation, has said very little about how the breach happened, except that it believes the thieves gained entry to its systems by infiltrating computers owned by one of its vendors, thought to be a Pittsburgh-area heating and refrigeration business.