A collaboration between the FBI and law enforcement agencies in 17 other countries has netted 90 arrests across the globe, all in association with the Blackshades remote access Trojan (RAT). The investigation was aided by one of the malware's co-creators.
"We now live in a world where, for just $40, a cybercriminal halfway across the globe can, with just a click of the mouse, unleash a RAT that can spread a computer plague -- not only on someone's property but also on their privacy and their most personal spaces," Preet Bharara, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said today at a press conference in New York. "In such a world, the law enforcement community must be committed to confronting cybercrime with sustained dedication and creativity, and that is what we have done here."
According to court documents, the Blackshades RAT was bought by at least several thousand users (law enforcement officials found roughly 6,000 customer profiles) in more than 100 countries and was used to infect more than half a million computers worldwide.
And why not? The RAT is exceptionally versatile, with all the benefits of botnets, keyloggers, creepware, ransomware, and more. According to a blog post by Symantec, which worked on the sting operation:
Blackshades is a popular and powerful remote access Trojan (RAT) that is used by a wide spectrum of threat actors, from entry level hackers right up to sophisticated cybercriminal groups. Blackshades was sold on a dedicated website, bshades.eu for US$40-$50. Competitively priced, with a rich feature list, Blackshades provides the attacker with complete control over an infected machine. A simple point and click interface allows them to steal data, browse the file system, take screenshots, record video, and interact with instant messaging applications and social networks.
The malware can also log keystrokes, lift passwords, encrypt files to hold them for ransom, and spread itself around by sending malicious links to the social contacts of infected users. It was used for everything from blackmail to financial fraud. According to court documents, Blackshade was so user friendly it generated pre-drafted ransom notes. One of its seedier features for harassing victims was that it could manipulate the infected computer's speech feature and make the computer "speak" to the victim, saying whatever the attacker wished.
Court documents reference one online ad for Blackshades, which sells the product pretty big:
Deciding between a RAT, a host booter, or controlling a botnet has never been easier. With Black Shades... you get the best of all three -- all in one with an easy to use, nice looking interface.
Even better, Blackshades... does a lot of work for you -- it can automatically map your ports, seed your torrent for you and spread through AIM, MSN, ICQ and USB devices.
Among those charged in this operation are:
- Alex Yucel, a.k.a. "marjinz," a.k.a. "Victor Soltan," 24, of Sweden, charged with conspiracy to commit computer hacking, distribution of malicious software, conspiracy to commit access device fraud, access device fraud, and aggravated identity theft. Yucel is presumed to be one of the authors of the Blackshades malware. The combined maximum sentence on all these charges is 44.5 years in prison.
- Michael Hogue, a.k.a. "xVisceral," charged with conspiracy to commit computer hacking and distribution of malicious software. Hogue was arrested in June 2012 as part of another international cybercrime takedown in which 24 people were arrested.
- Kyle Fedorek, a.k.a. "kbellow," charged with conspiracy to commit computer hacking, computer hacking, and access device fraud. Officials say Fedorek was a Blackshades customer who used the RAT to steal financial and other account information for more than 400 victims. According to officials, his laptop also contained at least 9,000 usernames/passwords and 50,000 credit card numbers, expiration dates, and CVVs.
- Marlen Rappa, a.k.a. "nelram," charged with conspiracy to commit computer hacking and computer hacking. Officials say Rappa used the RAT to turn on victims' webcams and take sexually explicit photos of them. He allegedly captured images of at least 45 victims and grabbed videos and photos from 95 victim computers.
- Brendan Johnston, a.k.a. "BV1," charged with conspiracy to commit computer hacking and transmission of malware. Johnston was a paid employee of the Blackshades organization who conducted marketing and sales and managed a customer tech support team, officials say.
The US government seized more than 1,900 domain names used by Blackshades customers to control infected computers. The government also shut down the bshades.eu site used to sell the product.
In March, Jared Abrahams, a 20-year-old computer science major, was arrested and accused of using Blackshades to blackmail Miss Teen USA Cassidy Wolf (a former classmate of his) and at least eight other women. He turned on Wolf's webcam, used it to take nude photos of her, and accessed her hard drive and her social media accounts.
Then he sent her an email that contained a few of the compromising photos and his demands. He gave her the option of doing at least one of the following: send him more "good quality" naked photos of herself, make him a "good quality" video of herself, or meet him on Skype and do whatever he said for five minutes. If she did not comply, the email said, he would publish those photos and "a LOT more."
Wolf decided to contact the authorities instead. Abrahams pleaded guilty to extortion and unauthorized access of a computer and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Information security experts applauded the Blackshades takedown but cautioned that the threat won't simply go away.
"It's good to see global law enforcement agencies working in a coordinated manner to crack down on those suspected of being involved in Blackshades," says Chris Boyd, malware intelligence analyst for Malwarebytes. "Working together to knock down doors will serve as a very visible warning to anyone looking to exploit people using nefarious software."
Dr. Mike Lloyd, CTO of RedSeal Networks, said the case provides "insight into the evolution of malware -- it's now a real economy, with regular license fees charged for the use of highly destructive software."
The FBI's work "while commendable, doesn't really change anything -- it just puts a few more bad guys in jail, but they will be replaced soon enough, as long as we continue to run on infrastructure that is easy to compromise," Lloyd said. "If we can make it harder to break in, then the economics of the game change in the right direction. The good news is we know how to build more secure infrastructure that is harder to break into. We just need to get better at actually implementing the basics. This is a problem for everyone. Just waiting for the FBI to lock up all the criminals is no solution."