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Vulnerabilities / Threats

FBI Breaks Up Two Big Scareware Rings

Feds seize equipment and trigger arrests as "Operation Trident Tribunal" targets scareware campaigns that collectively stole $74 million.

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The FBI on Tuesday announced that it has disrupted two scareware crime rings, as part of the bureau's ongoing "Operation Trident Tribunal." As part of those investigations, the FBI obtained warrants to seize 22 PCs and servers located across the United States that were used to support scareware operations. In addition, the FBI worked with law enforcement agencies in France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom to seize an additional 25 PCs and servers.

Given the timing of the FBI's Tuesday raids, they would appear to encompass the seizure of several servers hosted by DigitalOne in data center space it leased in Reston, Va. Accordingly, that seizure doesn't appear to have involved a LulzSec-related investigation--as The New York Times reported--but rather this scareware operation.

Scareware, also known as fake antivirus or fake AV, is a social engineering attack that uses bogus malware scans to trick customers into purchasing software that will eliminate the infection. Except that the software is a fake, and its malware-detection and removal capabilities nonexistent. More advanced forms of scareware also can deactivate legitimate antivirus software, which would otherwise block the scareware.

As part of Operation Trident Tribunal, which is ongoing, the FBI said it disrupted two criminal groups. The first earned revenues of at least $72 million over a three-year period. Approximately one million people were tricked into buying the scareware for up to $129 per copy. As part of the operation, Latvian authorities seized at least five bank accounts that authorities believe were used to funnel the profits to the scareware gang's leaders.

The second criminal operation resulted in the arrest, on Tuesday, of Peteris Sahurovs, 22, and Marina Maslobojeva, 23, in Latvia. An indictment unsealed on Tuesday in the U.S. District Court in Minneapolis charges the two with two counts of wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and computer fraud. Authorities have accused the pair of running a "malvertising" scam by creating a phony advertising agency, through which they purchased advertising space on the Minneapolis Star Tribune website. Newspaper staff vetted the digital advertisement before posting it to the site.

Afterwards, however, the indictment alleges that the defendants somehow altered the advertisement code to infect website visitors via drive-by downloads with malware that launched scareware applications on their PC. The scareware froze PCs until the user paid to purchase fake AV software. Authorities allege that users who didn't pay for the fake AV software "found that all information, data, and files stored on the computer became inaccessible." As part of this scam, the two Latvians allegedly netted $2 million.

As Latvia has an extradition treaty with the United States, it's likely the two will stand trial in a U.S. courtroom. They face penalties of up to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 on each of the wire fraud and conspiracy charges, up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on the computer fraud charge, as well as restitution and forfeiture of any illegal profits.

This isn't the government's first scareware bust. Last year, a federal grand jury indicted three men for running a scareware operation that authorities said generated more than $100 million in profits. But these new arrests highlight that the FBI has continued to foster the cross-border law enforcement agency relationships required to reach cyber criminals who aren't based in the United States.

"The global reach of the Internet makes every computer user in the world a potential victim of cyber crime," said U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones, in a statement. "Addressing cybercrime requires international cooperation; and in this case, the FBI, collaborating with our international law enforcement and prosecution partners, have worked tirelessly to disrupt two significant cybercriminal networks."

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