FBI swoops on scareware distributors

The US Department of Justice and the FBI, along with international law enforcement partners, announced the indictment of two individuals from Latvia and the seizure of more than 40 computers, servers and bank accounts as part of Operation Trident Tribunal, an ongoing, coordinated enforcement action targeting international cyber crime.

The operation targeted international cyber crime rings that caused more than $74 million in total losses to more than one million computer users through the sale of scareware.

Warrants obtained from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington and elsewhere throughout the United States led to the seizure of 22 computers and servers in the United States that were involved in facilitating and operating a scareware scheme.

In addition, 25 computers and servers located abroad were taken down as part of the operation, including equipment in the Netherlands, Latvia, Germany, France, Lithuania, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

The first of the international criminal groups disrupted by Operation Trident Tribunal infected hundreds of thousands of computers with scareware and sold more than $72 million of the fake antivirus product over a period of three years.

The scareware scheme used a variety of ruses to trick consumers into infecting their computers with the malicious scareware products, including web pages featuring fake computer scans. Once the scareware was downloaded, victims were notified that their computers were infected with a range of malicious software, such as viruses and Trojans and badgered into purchasing the fake antivirus software to resolve the non-existent problem at a cost of up to $129.

An estimated 960,000 users were victimized by this scareware scheme, leading to $72 million in actual losses. Latvian authorities also executed seizure warrants for at least five bank accounts that were alleged to have been used to funnel profits to the scam’s leadership.

A second international crime ring disrupted by Operation Trident Tribunal relied on online advertising to spread its scareware products, a tactic known as “malvertising.” An indictment unsealed today in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis charges the two operators of this scareware scheme with two counts of wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and computer fraud.

The defendants, Peteris Sahurovs, 22, and Marina Maslobojeva, 23, were arrested yesterday in Rezekne, Latvia on the charges out of the District of Minnesota. According to the indictment, the defendants created a phony advertising agency and claimed that they represented a hotel chain that wanted to purchase online advertising space on the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s news website, startribune.com. The defendants provided an electronic version of the advertisement for the hotel chain to the Star Tribune, and technical staff at startribune.com tested the advertising and found it to operate normally.

According to court documents, after the advertisement began running on the website, the defendants changed the computer code in the ad so that the computers of visitors to the startribune.com were infected with a malicious software program that launched scareware on their systems.

The scareware caused users’ computers to “freeze up” and then generate a series of pop-up warnings in an attempt to trick users into purchasing purported “antivirus” software, which was in fact fake.

Users’ computers “unfroze” if the users paid the defendants for the fake antivirus software, but the malicious software remained hidden on their computers. Users who failed to purchase the fake antivirus software found that all information, data and files stored on the computer became inaccessible.

The scam allegedly led to at least $2 million in losses. If convicted, the defendants face penalties of up to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 on the wire fraud and conspiracy charges, and up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 on the computer fraud charge. The defendants also face restitution and forfeiture of their illegal profits.

Operation Trident Tribunal was the result of significant international cooperation and substantial assistance from the Criminal Division’s Office of International Affairs. Multiple foreign law enforcement partners provided invaluable assistance in this operation, including those in Cyprus, Germany, Latvia, Ukraine, Lithuania, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, the UK, Romania and Canada.

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