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Two Fake AV Rings Busted By FBI In 'Operation Trident Tribunal'

Reports out of the Ukraine appear to indicate that the Conficker worm might have been one of the vehicles for spreading the scareware

The FBI and a team of international law enforcement organizations have shaken up two scareware operations that infected nearly 1 million users worldwide and cost victims some $74 million in losses. The so-called Operation Trident Tribunal, an ongoing international cybercrime initiative, has netted the indictments and arrests of two Latvians and the seizure of some 40 computers and bank accounts -- including 22 computers in the U.S. that supported the scareware operations. Another 25 systems overseas that were used by the scammers were shut down as well.

The Department of Justice, FBI, and authorities from Germany, Latvia, Cyprus, the Ukraine, Lithuania, France, The Netherlands, Sweden, Romania, and Canada teamed up in the operation.

"Scareware is just another tactic that cybercriminals are using to take money from citizens and businesses around the world. This operation targeted a sophisticated business enterprise that had the capacity to steal millions," said Gordon M. Snow, assistant director of the FBI cyber division. "Cyberthreats are a global problem, and no single country working alone can be effective against these crimes. The FBI thanks the participating foreign law enforcement agencies for their ongoing partnership and commitment in disrupting this threat."

One of the criminal gangs had sold some $72 million in fake AV products over three years, charging up to $129 to each victim. The FBI did not provide specifics on how this group infected its potential victims with the spyware that spread the fake AV, but the group used a combination of Web pages hosting phony scans; once the user downloaded the scareware, he or she was warned that the machine was infected with various viruses and Trojans. The user was then pressured into purchasing the phony AV software to fix them. Around 960,000 users worldwide fell for this, according to Justice Deparment officials, and around five Latvian bank accounts were used to transmit the money to the cybergang's leaders.

Meanwhile, the FBI has not confirmed whether this case is the same one announced by officials in the Ukraine of a fake AV ring bust today: Officials there say a scareware operation hit by international officials, including the FBI, used the Conficker worm to spread the scareware. The FBI's announcement on Operation Trident Tribunal yesterday does not mention Conficker as a means of spreading the scareware, but both reports refer to a $72 million loss figure in a scareware scam. IDG first reported on the Ukrainian bust today.

The other criminal gang disrupted in Operation Trident Tribunal used "malvertising" to spread its fake AV. Latvian authorities arrested Peteris Sahurovs, 22, and Marina Maslobojeva, 23, in Rezekne, Latvia, earlier this week for allegedly masterminding the scheme. The two men allegedly posed as an advertising firm representing a hotel chain and purchased ad space on the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper's website. They later injected the ad with malicious code that executed the scareware onto the machines of visitors on the site.

Victims' machines were frozen and hit with pop-up warnings that forced them to purchase the scammers' phony AV software. If they didn't buy the software, then they were unable to access anything on their machines. Sahurovs and Maslobojeva face up to 20 years in prison for wire fraud and conspiracy and computer fraud charges. Their scam led to $2 million in losses for their victims.

“Today’s operation targets cybercrime rings that stole millions of dollars from unsuspecting computer users,” said Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Criminal Division. “These criminal enterprises infected the computers of innocent victims with malicious scareware, and then duped them into purchasing fake antivirus software. Cybercrime is profitable, and can prey upon American consumers and companies from nearly any corner of the globe. We will continue to be aggressive and innovative in our approach to combating this international threat. At the same time, computer users must be vigilant in educating themselves about cyber security and taking the appropriate steps to prevent dangerous and costly intrusions.”

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Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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