WELLINGTON, New Zealand – Police questioned the suspected teenage kingpin of an international cyber crime network accused of infiltrating 1.3 million computers and skimming millions of dollars from victims' bank accounts, officials said.
Working with the FBI and police in the Netherlands, New Zealand police raided the home of the 18-year-old in the North Island city of Hamilton and took him into custody along with several computers, said Martin Kleintjes, head of the police electronic crime center.
He was later released without charge after being questioned, though police said he was still part of the investigation.
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The case is part of an international crackdown on hackers who allegedly assume control of thousands of computers and amass them into centrally controlled clusters known as botnets.
The hackers can then use the computers to steal credit card information, manipulate stock trades and even crash industry computers, authorities say.
Eight people have been indicted, pleaded guilty or have been convicted since the investigation started in June. Thirteen additional warrants have been served in the U.S. and overseas in the investigation.
The FBI estimates that more than one million computers have been infected and puts the combined economic losses at more than $20 million.
The New Zealander, known by his cyber identification as "AKILL," was "head of an international spybot ring that has infiltrated computers round the world with their malicious software," Kleintjes told National Radio.
Kleintjes told The Associated Press the teenager, whose name was not released because he was under 18 when the alleged offenses began, was cooperating with investigators in telling them how the crime system works.
"We have seized a number of computers and are talking with him," he said. "We are going for evidence and the case will develop from there. We're still in the early stages of the investigation."
Detective Inspector Peter Devoy, the senior investigator in the case, said the youth was later released after questioning and had not been charged. Further investigation of the youth's seized computers could lead to international inquiries, he said.
Kleintjes said possible charges against the teen could involve having unauthorized access to computers and possessing computer hacking tools — charges that carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
Spybot and botnet are jargon for infiltrating a group of computers and infecting them with malicious software that allows them to be used to collect information — mainly credit card and bank account details.
Kleintjes said the New Zealander had written software that evaded normal computer spyware systems, then sold his skills to hackers.
"He is very bright and very skilled in what he's doing," Kleintjes said. "He hires his services out to others."
Earlier this month, Ryan Goldstein, 21, of Ambler, Pa., was indicted in the case. Authorities allege that the New Zealand suspect and Goldstein were involved in crashing a University of Pennsylvania engineering school server Feb. 23, 2006.
Officials said that the server, which typically handles about 450 daily requests for Internet downloads, instead got 70,000 requests from the account of an unsuspecting Penn student over four days.
Over time, the FBI followed an electronic trail from that student's account to Goldstein's screen name, "Digerati," and the New Zealand hacker.
The crash briefly shut down computers at Penn's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, but did relatively little damage, university spokesman Ron Ozio said.
Goldstein has pleaded not guilty and was released on bail while awaiting a trial set for March 10.
He faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted of the single count of conspiracy to commit computer fraud.
"We feel the charges are inflated," defense lawyer Ronald Levine said Thursday. "We think this is kind of an exaggerated case."
Goldstein did not return phone messages left by The Associated Press on his cell phone and his parents' home in Ambler. He remains enrolled at Penn, according to Ozio, who said he could not comment on possible disciplinary action.