Update: Feds bust international gangs distributing scareware products

Two Latvian citizens, dozens of computers seized as part of Operation Trident Tribunal

Federal law enforcement authorities working in cooperation with their counterparts in more than 10 countries have disrupted the operations of two gangs responsible for distributing malicious scareware programs to more than 1 million people.

Two Latvian citizens have been indicted and more than 40 computers and several bank accounts have been seized in connection with the action dubbed Operation Trident Tribunal.

The two individuals face up to 20 years in prison if they are convicted on all charges.

Scareware products are malicious software programs that pose as legitimate security software. The programs are installed without permission on end user systems and are used to serve up a never-ending barrage of alerts warning users about non-existent threats on their systems and urging them to buy fake anti-malware products to resolve the issues.

The programs are designed to badger victims and to render their computers inoperable until they agree to provide their credit or debit card numbers to pay for the fake anti-malware products.

A statement issued by the FBI today said that Peteris Sahurovs, 22, and Marina Maslibojeva, 23, were arrested Tuesday in Rezekne, Latvia, for allegedly distributing and selling nearly $2 million worth of such scareware products.

The two have been charged with wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and computer fraud.

An indictment unsealed in federal court in Minneapolis accused the two of creating a phony advertising agency and using it to plant a malicious advertisement in the Minneapolis Star Tribune with the intent of distributing scareware.

According to the indictment, the pair claimed to represent a hotel chain that wanted to place an advertisement in the Star Tribune. The two are alleged to have provided an electronic ad that the paper ran on its website after testing it and finding it to operate normally.

Sahurovs and Maslibojeva are accused of manipulating the advertisement after it began running so that the computers of those visiting the Star Tribune's website became infected with scareware. The malware caused users' computers to lock up and rendered their data inaccessible until they purchased the phony anti-malware product, the indictment said.

A statement released by the FBI said that law enforcement authorities had also disrupted operations of a separate criminal gang that was responsible for distributing scareware products.

The group is alleged to have distributed scareware products on more than 960,000 computers and netted $72 million from the sale of fraudulent anti-malware products.

Five bank accounts believed to belong to gang leaders have been seized by Latvian authorities.

In all, the Operation Trident Tribunal has resulted in the seizure of 22 computers in the U.S., and an additional 25 computers in the Netherlands, Latvia, Germany, France and other countries.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at  @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His email address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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