A band of hackers implanted viruses on hundreds of thousands of computers around the world, secretly seized customer bank information and stole more than US$100 million from businesses and consumers, the US Justice Department said when announcing charges against the Russian man accused of masterminding the scheme.
In unveiling the criminal case, federal authorities said they disrupted European-based cyberthreats that were sophisticated, lucrative and global.
In one scheme, the criminals infected computers with malicious software that captured bank account numbers and passwords, then used that information to secretly divert millions of dollars from victims' bank accounts to themselves. In another, they locked hacking victims out of their own computers, secretly encrypted personal files on the machines and returned control to users only when ransom payments of several hundred dollars were made.
"The criminals effectively held for ransom every private e-mail, business plan, child's science project, or family photograph - every single important and personal file stored on the victim's computer," said Leslie Caldwell, head of the Justice Department's criminal division.
Working with officials in more than 10 countries, the FBI and other agencies seized computer servers that were central to the crimes, which affected hundreds of thousands of computers.
The FBI called the alleged ringleader, 30-year-old Evgeniy Bogachev, one of the most prolific cybercriminals in the world and issued a "Wanted" poster that lists his online monikers and describes him as a boating enthusiast. He faces criminal charges in Pittsburgh, where he was named in a 14-count indictment, and in Nebraska, where a criminal complaint was filed. He has not been arrested, but Deputy Attorney General James Cole said US authorities were in contact with Russia to try to bring him into custody.
Officials said the case was another stark reminder of the evolving cybercrime threat, though it was unrelated to the recently unsealed cyberespionage indictment of five Chinese military hackers accused of stealing trade secrets from American firms. Both sets of hackers relied on similar tactics - including sending e-mails to unsuspecting victims that installed malware - but the Chinese defendants were government officials who sought information that could bring Chinese companies a competitive advantage.
Bogachev's operation, prosecutors say, consisted of criminals in Russia, Ukraine and Britain who were assigned different roles within the conspiracy.
The victims of the schemes included a firm that runs assisted living centres in Pennsylvania, a pest control company in North Carolina and a restaurant operator in Florida.
A Florida bank lost nearly US$7 million through an unauthorised wire transfer. A police department in Massachusetts lost US$750 when it paid a ransom demanded by the malicious software that infected its computers.
Last week, a federal judge in Pittsburgh granted a temporary restraining order against Bogachev and the others, demanding that they cease such activities. That order was unsealed along with the charges on Monday.