Three men were charged in New York Wednesday with creating and spreading a computer virus to more than a million computers worldwide, siphoning out passwords and online banking information that allowed hackers to steal tens of millions of dollars.
The so-called "Gozi" virus infected at least 40,000 computers in the United States in 2007. The men behind the malware are accused of using it to hack into online banking accounts in order to steal millions of dollars from unsuspecting customers, prosecutors said.
Mihai Ionut Paunescu, Deniss Calovskis and Nikita Kuzmin are charged with bank fraud and other conspiracy counts. Prosecutors said each man played his part: Kuzmin was allegedly the creator of the virus, Calovskis modified it and Paunescu helped spread it, in part by allegedly providing IP addresses to the many cybercriminals who were using the virus.
United States Attorney Preet Bharara said the men planted “Gozi” in seemingly harmless emails that could infect a computer when opened. Using this malware, the suspects were allegedly able to steal bank account numbers and passwords.
One example outlined in the criminal complaint shows how on Aug. 13, 2010, suspect Kuzmin allegedly stole $8,710 from an account without the victim’s consent. In all, tens of millions of dollars were allegedly stolen from individuals and businesses.
Calling the scheme a "modern day bank robbery ring," Bharara said at a news conference Wednesday that the suspects used technology to rob banks because "that's where the money still is."
"Cyber crime remains one of the biggest threats we face," he added.
Investigators said Paunescu helped criminals gain access to various Internet service providers so the criminal schemes could be carried out without being detected. They also said Calovskis had “training and expertise” in computer programming and was willing to rent the Gozi virus out to other criminals, sometimes for $50,000 in addition to a cut of the take, according to Bharara.
Prosecutors said they used informants to infiltrate the ring and make the case against the suspects.
Kuzmin is Russian; he pleaded guilty and is cooperating with authorities, prosecutors said. Calovskis was arrested in Latvia last month. Paunescu is Romanian and was arrested there in November.
Information on their attorneys wasn't immediately available.
Copyright Associated Press / NBC New York