A Romanian immigrant has been sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison for running a lucrative computerized "phishing" scheme that collected financial records and personal identification from thousands of individuals, including nearly 100 from Minnesota.

Sergiu D. Popa, 23, of Shelby Township, Mich., was sentenced Tuesday in federal court in Minneapolis for a plot that cost his 7,000 or so victims about $700,000, by his own admission.

"Because there were so many victims who were hurt badly, the court believes the sentence is appropriate in order to protect the public," said Judge John Tunheim. "There needs to be a deterrent to others who are trying similar crimes over the Internet."

According to the guilty plea Popa entered last fall:

From June 2000 through February 2007, Popa used two e-mail accounts to "phish," or search for personal identification and financial information, such as names, addresses, bank account numbers, credit card numbers and Social Security numbers.

He then created fraudulent e-mails and websites to appear as if they were legitimate. Victims who received his e-mails and went to his websites were tricked into providing their personal identification and financial information, believing a legitimate institution had requested the information.

Popa also offered to sell stolen personal identification information. During a search of his home, the FBI recovered a machine for imprinting graphics on blank white cards, foil ribbons for making holographs that appear on identification cards and credit cards, as well as blank plastic cards and partially created false drivers' licenses and credit cards.

He also offered to sell "a phishing/spamming toolkit" for $1,500, with step-by-step instructions. Authorities found one file in his Yahoo account that contained identification and credit card information for more than 5,800 victims; 96 of these had addresses in Minnesota, and 34 of them were in Hennepin County.

Popa entered the United States on a six-month visitor visa in June 2000 and overstayed illegally, said Theodore Theisen, an FBI special agent with the Minnesota Cyber Crime Task Force in Minneapolis.

Popa served 71 days in 2006 for a conviction stemming from a Saline, Mich., case in which he hijacked an eBay account to trick someone into sending him $1,448 to buy a product that didn't exist.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested him as a deportable alien in July 2006, but he filed for permanent residency and sought to suppress his felony record. The FBI filed a criminal complaint against him the day before he was scheduled to appear in immigration court for a deportation hearing.

Staff writer Dan Browning contributed to this report. Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482