Published January 23, 2013
NEW YORK – Three men were in custody Wednesday on charges that they spread a computer virus to more than a million computers worldwide, including at least 40,000 in the United States, siphoning out passwords and online banking information that allowed hackers to steal tens of millions of dollars.
Their arrests were announced as federal authorities unsealed documents in Manhattan federal court accusing the men of participating in a conspiracy that began in 2005 and continued through much of last year. NASA computers were among those infected by what was labeled the Gozi virus.
The NASA breach occurred from Dec. 14, 2007, to Aug. 9, 2012, when about 190 agency computers were infected with the virus, according to court documents. Between May and August last year, they said, the infected computers sent data without the user's authorization, including login credentials for an eBay account and a NASA email account, details of visited websites and the contents of Google chat messages.
Other destructive viruses and malicious software, including Zeus Trojan, SpyEye and BlackEnergy, were distributed through the network, according to a criminal complaint filed against Mihai Ionut Paunescu, also known as "Virus."
Paunescu is a Romanian national residing in Bucharest. According to court papers, Romanian organized crime investigators have been conducting their own probe of him that included court-authorized surveillance of his cellphone communications over the last year.
The document said Paunescu set up online infrastructure that allowed others to distribute the damaging programs, causing tens of millions of dollars in losses and affecting well over a million computers worldwide.
The Gozi virus was designed in 2005 and distributed beginning in 2007, when it was secretly installed onto each victim's computer in a manner that left it virtually undetectable by antivirus software, the complaint said.
FBI agent M. Kathryn Scott wrote in the complaint charging Paunescu with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion that some information about the virus came through the cooperation of a Gozi virus distributor who pleaded guilty to various fraud and computer intrusion charges and was cooperating with U.S. law enforcement officials in the hopes of receiving leniency at sentencing.
Paunescu was arrested in Romania. Deniss Calovskis was arrested in Latvia, where he is a citizen and resident, on charges including bank fraud conspiracy. Nikita Kuzmin, a Russian national, was arrested in New York on various charges, including bank fraud and bank fraud conspiracy.
It was not immediately clear who would represent the defendants in court.
A charging document against Kuzmin accused him of designing the Gozi virus beginning in 2005 as a way to steal the personal bank account information of individuals and businesses in a widespread way.
It said he hired a programmer to write it and began in 2006 to rent the virus to others for a weekly fee, advertising it on Internet forums devoted to cybercrime and other criminal activities. In 2009, according to the document, Kuzmin was approached by others who wanted to acquire the source code so they could attack computers and steal money from bank accounts in the United States and in particular European countries. The document said Kuzmin offered the code to other groups of people for $50,000 plus a guaranteed share of future profits.
According to court documents, Calovskis had training and expertise in computer programming when he was hired by a co-conspirator to upgrade the virus with new code that would deceive victims into divulging additional personal information, such as mother's maiden names. Federal authorities sought at least $50 million from Calovskis, an amount of money they said was obtained through the conspiracy.