BOSTON A 28-year-old computer hacker pleaded guilty to some of the largest identity theft crimes on record on Friday and left a federal judge grappling with how to compensate millions of victims.
Court documents filed in August had shown that Albert Gonzalez of Miami would plead guilty to federal charges in Massachusetts and New York that he helped lead a worldwide ring that stole more than 40 million credit and debit card numbers.
Stores from which the data were stolen included TJX Cos Inc, parent of T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, BJ's Wholesale Club Inc and OfficeMax Inc.
Gonzalez faces similar charges in New Jersey.
The cases have drawn attention to weaknesses in the payment system and put pressure on credit card networks and banks to upgrade their systems.
In his first public appearance since the plea deal was filed, Gonzalez seemed more humble than he had a year ago in the same courtroom.
At Friday's hearing, he gave short answers as Judge Patti Saris reviewed the 20 charges to which he pleaded guilty. At one point, he acknowledged using the screen name "segvec", as prosecutors had charged.
Gonzalez faces up to 25 years in prison.
Saris set a sentencing date in December, but first intends to review how authorities might compensate his victims, including retailers, banks and millions of individuals.
Authorities confiscated cash, computers, a condominium and a handgun from Gonzalez, collectively worth more than $1.6 million.
His attorneys and prosecutors agreed that those assets would be "modest" compared to the damages he had caused his victims.
"I have a sinking sensation that the number of victims may exceed the available recovery," Saris said in court.
In their indictment of Gonzalez last year, prosecutors described him as the ringleader of a loosely knit group that stretched from Ukraine to Asia.
Several others have pleaded guilty or been convicted in relation to these cases.
Gonzalez was led away in handcuffs and will be held at a federal facility in Rhode Island.
His attorney, Rene Palomino, reiterated that Gonzalez was not the ringleader of the group. "They can call him whatever they want. I'll call him a co-conspirator," he told Reuters.
Palomino said Gonzalez was "extremely remorseful".
Asked about Gonzalez's changed demeanor, Palomino said it stemmed from his guilty plea.
"Once you make the decision ... you get a lot off your chest. Taking responsibility for your action is the first step to putting it behind you," Palomino said.
(Reporting by Ross Kerber; Editing by Andre Grenon, Toni Reinhold)