Former discount furniture salesman is now FBI cyber expert who has taken down top hackers

  • Article by: JOE MANDAK , Associated Press
  • Updated: July 13, 2014 - 3:49 PM

PITTSBURGH — J. Keith Mularski's world has expanded greatly since he stopped selling discount furniture to join the FBI in 1998. Especially since he transferred from Washington, D.C., in 2005 to fill a vacancy in the Pittsburgh field office's cyber squad — which he now heads.

Since then, Supervisory Special Agent Mularski has been recognized as a foremost expert on cybercrime. His profile has risen even more since the Justice Department used Mularski's sleuthing to bring two indictments with worldwide ramifications.

In May, five Chinese Army intelligence officers were charged with stealing trade secrets from major manufacturers including U.S. Steel, Alcoa and Westinghouse.

In June, a Russian man was charged with leading a ring that infected hundreds of thousands of computers with identity-thieving software, then using the stolen information to drain $100 million from bank accounts worldwide.

Mularski, 44, said in April during an oral history interview for the National Law Enforcement Museum that he became a furniture salesman out of college because jobs were hard to come by then. He spent about five years in the business before joining the FBI.

"I was in private industry beforehand. But I've kind of always liked computers," Mularski told The Associated Press during a recent interview.

All 56 FBI field offices have cyber squads. Mularski chose Pittsburgh largely because of family considerations — he grew up in suburban White Oak, the son of a steelworker.

"It kind of looked like cyber was the wave of the future," Mularski said. "The majority of all my computer training was just on-the-job training at the bureau."

It has proved remarkably effective.

Even before the Chinese and Russian cases made worldwide headlines, Mularski was making cyber waves.

He made his reputation infiltrating Dark Market in 2006. The worldwide Internet forum allowed crooks to buy and sell stolen identity and credit card information.

Mularski infiltrated the network by pretending to be a notorious Polish computer hacker using the screen name "Master Splyntr" — a takeoff on the cartoon rat who guides the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Mularski was inspired while watching the cartoon character with his young son: "He's a rat that lives underground. It was perfect," he said.

Mularski befriended the criminal mastermind behind the site and persuaded him to let Mularski move the operation onto new computer servers. The servers happened to belong to the FBI, which led to more than 60 arrests worldwide.

Misha Glenny, a British journalist who specializes in cybercrime, wrote a book about the case called "Dark Market, How Hackers Became the New Mafia."

"Keith Mularski is not without technical ability, but his real talent lies in convincing experienced cybercriminals that he is one of them and not a law enforcement officer," Glenny told the AP.

His aw-shucks demeanor also makes him an ideal team player.

"He has an understanding of the whole grid, and then he develops relationships, whether it's with victims, the private sector, and our international partners," said David Hickton, the U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh.

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