One errant button click. That’s all it takes for a computer or mobile device to be infected or hacked.
Just by getting people to click on malicious e-mail attachments, an international crime ring set in motion a scheme that infected more than 60,000 individual computers, sent out 11 million malicious emails and defrauded people of up to $35 million, according to federal authorities and security experts.
The case illustrates that malicious software lurks in cyberspace, disguised as innocent-looking links and programs.
It also underscores the fact that consumers have little room for error online, considering their devices and personal information are at stake.
“You as a consumer — you have to be right every time,” said Mike Tobin, spokesman with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Ohio. “You click on something once, and you’re hit with it.”
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The e-mails looked legitimate, as they so often do in criminal hacking cases.
They purported to be from Western Union, Norton and the IRS. The messages contained attachments, alleging to be cash receipts and other notices.
But when people clicked on the attached files, they unknowingly installed malicious software on their devices, which was dubbed the “Bayrob Trojan,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Ohio.
The Bayrob Trojan allowed a group of Romanian nationals to infect between 60,000 and 160,000 computers and send out 11 million malicious emails, according to Symantec, a leading cybersecurity firm that assisted authorities with the case.
The victims, which included residents from many Ohio communities, were defrauded of at least $4 million, federal authorities said. Symantec says the losses actually could be as much as $35 million over eight years.
The malicious software obtained people’s stored contacts and sent out infected e-mails or instant messages to those targets.
The Trojan also allowed the suspects to intercept user names and passwords and helped them steal the credit card information of more than 500 people, authorities said.
When victims would try to log onto Facebook, PayPal, eBay and other websites, they were redirected to nearly identical but fake sites created by the hackers, authorities said.
When victims tried to purchase goods that were listed on the phony pages, they were charged for items they never received, court documents show. The malware helped steal people’s login credentials and passwords.
“The group is responsible for stealing up to $35 million from victims through auto auction scams, credit card fraud and computer intrusions,” Jeff Greene, senior director of government affair and policy with Symantec Corp., told a Congressional subcommittee earlier this month.
Last year, Romanian nationals Bogdan Nicolescu, Tiberiu Danet and Radu Miclaus were extradited to the United States after being arrested overseas.
They were charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, money laundering and trafficking in counterfeit service marks.
They also were charged with aggravated identity theft and wire fraud.
The Bayrob malware had multiple versions that evolved from online fraud to a botnet of 300,000 computers that primarily mined digital currency at the victims’ expense, Greene said.
Botnets are networks of private computers infected with malicious software that are controlled as a group without their owners’ knowledge.
Symantec through a decade-long research campaign helped uncover the Bayrob crime ring and assist federal and Romanian authorities build their case against its members, Greene said.
The gang recruited money mules and went to great lengths to make the scams appear legitimate, officials said.
Their fake eBay pages included fictitious feedback about sellers, and they set up phony phone lines and voicemail service to string victims along until their payments went through, according to Symantec.
Technology is wondrously useful, but it also gives criminals in distant places, like Romania, opportunities to trick and steal from Ohioans, Tobin said.
“You rob banks, because that’s where the money is,” Tobin said. “Well, the money is now on our phones and our computers.”
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine urges Ohioans to be cautious when they connect to and browse the Internet.
DeWine, who was not speaking about this particular case, said citizens should ignore and delete links and messages from unknown sources and be wary of messages directing people to verify an account or enter their passwords.
“If you don’t know what something is before you click it, don’t click it,” DeWine said. “Don’t automatically click things.”