Six Estonian nationals are under arrest and facing charges of running a sophisticated Internet fraud ring that infected millions of computers worldwide with a virus and enabled the thieves to manipulate the multi-billion-dollar Internet advertising industry.
While the hackers were working their plan, users of infected machines remained unaware their computers suffered a compromise — or the malicious software rendered their machines vulnerable to a host of other viruses.
The two-year FBI investigation called Operation Ghost Click came to fruition in New York when officials unsealed a federal indictment. Officials also described their efforts to make sure infected users’ Internet access would not suffer as a result of the operation.
The indictment “describes an intricate international conspiracy conceived and carried out by sophisticated criminals,” said Janice Fedarcyk, assistant director in charge of the New York FBI office. “The harm inflicted by the defendants was not merely a matter of reaping illegitimate income.”
Beginning in 2007, the cyber ring used a class of malware called DNSChanger to infect approximately 4 million computers in more than 100 countries. There were about 500,000 infections in the U.S., including computers belonging to individuals, businesses, and government agencies such as NASA. The thieves were able to manipulate Internet advertising to generate at least $14 million in illicit fees. In some cases, the malware had the additional effect of preventing users’ anti-virus software and operating systems from updating, thereby exposing infected machines to even more malicious software.
“They were organized and operating as a traditional business but profiting illegally as the result of the malware,” said one cyber agents who worked the case. “There was a level of complexity here that we haven’t seen before.”
DNS (Domain Name System) is a critical Internet service that converts user-friendly domain names, such as www.fbi.gov, into numerical addresses that allow computers to talk to each other. Without DNS and the DNS servers operated by Internet service providers, computer users would not be able to browse websites or send email.
DNSChanger redirected unsuspecting users to rogue servers controlled by the cyber thieves, allowing them to manipulate users’ web activity. When users of infected computers clicked on the link for the official website of iTunes, for example, they ended up on a website for a business unaffiliated with Apple Inc. that purported to sell Apple software. Not only did the cyber thieves make money from these schemes, they deprived legitimate website operators and advertisers of substantial revenue.
The six cyber criminals are in custody in Estonia, and the U.S. will seek to extradite them. In conjunction with the arrests, U.S. authorities seized computers and rogue DNS servers at various locations. As part of a federal court order, the rogue DNS servers ended up replaced with legitimate servers in the hopes that users who were infected will not have their Internet access disrupted.
It is important to note the replacement servers will not remove the DNSChanger malware, or other viruses it may have facilitated, from infected computers. Users who believe their computers may be infected should contact a computer professional.