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Six reputed members of the Gambino crime family pleaded guilty to ringing up more than $650 million in unauthorized charges on telephone customers’ credit cards and phone bills.

For almost a century, members of the Gambino crime family maintained a violent grip over New York as ruthless practitioners of murder, drug pushing, racketeering and extortion.

Now six men, at least two of whom have been linked to what was once one of America’s premier Mafioso gangs, have been told they face lengthy prison terms for the mob’s first foray into the more prosaic, but no less lucrative, 21st century crime of phone and internet fraud.

The six, led by alleged Gambino captain Salvatore LoCascio, have pleaded guilty to a series of charges including money laundering and conspiracy. Their surprise admissions at a District Court in Brooklyn today came as jury selection was to have begun on one of the most eagerly-awaited underworld trials for years.

Prosecutors have described the operation as as one of the biggest consumer frauds in history. It netted more than $650 million in five years. The defendants built up a complex web of shell corporations, advertising free services such as psychic readings, phone sex and horoscopes.

Dialling the numbers triggered unauthorised monthly charges on callers’ phone bills, which over the period of the scam amounted to about $420 million.

One of the members, Richard Martino – known to the New York tabloids as the X-Rated Mobster – was also charged in connection with a scheme that placed unauthorized charges on the credit cards of customers seeking “free tours” of pornographic websites.

Customers who believed the sites had merely requested their credit card details for age verification were defrauded of a total of US$230 million.

The elaborate schemes brought in so much money that the defendants were able to purchase a telephone company and bank in Missouri, according to court documents. They also created at least 64 companies and opened a host of foreign bank accounts through which to launder the money, the documents said.

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