FBI teams with 11 countries to unmask scareware ringleaders

Increasingly, U.S. authorities depend on foreign governments for help discovering the identities of cyber criminals who use fake names and foreign bank accounts to hide their proceeds.

FBI officials coordinated with nearly a dozen countries to squelch two cyber gangs that netted $74 million by downloading viruses onto more than 1 million victims' computers and then threatening to erase their hard drives unless they purchased pricy fixes.

The shakedown on purveyors of "scareware" is one of several recent law enforcement efforts to nab the leaders of cyber crime rings by obtaining financial clues from overseas accounts through international cooperation, security experts say.

The nature of the Internet makes it hard for authorities to attribute computer crimes to specific individuals. Offenders exploit the anonymity of the Web to hide their true identities and use various foreign servers and bank accounts that are outside U.S. law enforcement's jurisdiction.

So feds often rely on international partners to pinpoint a suspect's tangible assets, which are harder to conceal than virtual, online transactions, said Jesse McKenna, an analyst at fraud-prevention firm Silver Tail Systems, who previously designed intrusion detection systems for online auction site eBay and its payment processing division, PayPal.

The scareware case, called Operation Trident Tribunal, involved 12 countries: the United States, Ukraine, Latvia, Germany, Netherlands, Cyprus, France, Sweden, Lithuania, Romania, Canada and the United Kingdom.

"It's easy to mask your identity online," McKenna said. "It's pretty trivial to have a domain name registered under a fictitious identity. . . [but] at the end there is going to be a bank account and someone is going to need to get to those funds."

During Trident Tribunal, U.S. authorities first probably focused attention on the malware inserted on the victims' computers, rather than the perpetrators' servers on the other end, McKenna said.

"It's easy to create a fictitious identity to deceive forensic analysts on the server side," he said, but the user side is where the money exchange begins.

"At the end of the line, there is going to be a person who has a passport or some other identification who has set up the account because they need to get the money out," McKenna explained.

Earlier this month U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities thanked overseas attaché offices in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Brasilia, Brazil; and Bern, Switzerland; for help seizing about $15 million in sales of counterfeit antivirus software from a fugitive's Swiss bank account.

In one of the two scareware investigations, defendants Peteris Sahurovs and Marina Maslobojeva, defrauded Internet users of more than $2 million by infecting their computers with malicious software that froze or slowed their machines, according to an indictment unsealed Wednesday in federal court in Minneapolis, Minn.

A copy of the document reviewed by Nextgov states the pair corrupted computers by creating bogus advertising agencies such as "RevolTech Marketing" that placed malicious Internet ads on legitimate websites, including the Minneapolis Star Tribune's online newspaper.

The ads, "unbeknownst to the victim companies, contained computer code, which, in turn, caused the Internet browsers of victim Internet users who visited the victim companies' websites to be 'hijacked' or redirected without their consent to websites controlled by [the defendants]," the indictment stated. Then, the visitor would be prompted with "a series of materially false 'security alert' messages, which claimed that the user's computer had been infected with malware and that the victim Internet user needed to purchase an antivirus product to fix the 'security issue.'"

The notices peddled a $49.95 product called Antivirus Soft.

In February 2010, the defendants' front company RevolTech placed an "ad" for Best Western International in the Star Tribune. The image actually redirected readers to a website hosted in Latvia that automatically downloaded scareware onto the victims' computers. Throughout the month, "visitors to the startribune.com website began experiencing slow system performance, unwanted pop-ups and total system failure," the indictment stated.

Users would then receive pop-ups with a phony "Windows Security Alert" message stating, "Windows reports that computer is infected. Antivirus software helps to protect your computer against viruses and other security threats. Click here for the scan you computer [sic]. Your system might be at risk now."

Next, messages notified the visitors they needed Antivirus Soft to fix the security issue and instructed them to pay for the service by entering their credit card numbers. If users ignored the messages, they would be bombarded by security alerts and unable to access anything on their computers. The indictment stated, "Victim computer users had to either pay $49.95. . . or over-write the computer hard-drive and lose all applications and data."

In the other scareware scheme, investigators at the FBI's Seattle office identified a variety of conceits another group used to swindle $72 million from about 960,000 victims, such as guiding consumers to Web pages displaying bogus computer scans. The visitors' computers then flashed pop-ups stating that their systems contained viruses that required $129 antivirus software.

"Cyber threats are a global problem, and no single country working alone can be effective against these crimes," Gordon M. Snow, assistant director of the FBI's cyber division said in a statement.

U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones of the District of Minnesota added, "The FBI, collaborating with our international law enforcement and prosecution partners, have worked tirelessly to disrupt two significant cybercriminal networks. Their efforts demonstrate that no matter the country, Internet criminals will be pursued, caught and prosecuted."

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