ATLANTA (AP) — The Russian creator of a computer program that enabled cybercriminals to infect millions of computers and drain bank accounts in multiple countries was sentenced Wednesday to serve 9 ½ years in federal prison.
Aleksandr Andreevich Panin, 27, who went by aliases “Gribodemon” and “Harderman” online, pleaded guilty to a count of conspiracy to commit bank and wire fraud in January 2014 after reaching a deal with prosecutors. He created SpyEye, which prosecutor Steven Grimberg said was a pre-eminent malware from 2010 to 2012 and was used to infect more than 50 million computers and cause nearly $1 billion in damage to individuals and financial institutions around the world.
A second man, Hamza Bendelladj, a 27-year-old Algerian known online as “Bx1,” was sentenced to 15 years Wednesday afternoon. Both he and Panin will likely be deported after serving their sentences.
SpyEye was a type of Trojan virus that secretly implanted itself on victims’ computers to steal sensitive information, including bank account credentials, credit card information, passwords and PIN numbers. Once it took over a computer, it allowed hackers to trick victims into surrendering personal information — including data grabbing and fake bank account pages. The information was relayed to a command and control server to be used to access victim accounts.
Most Read Business Stories
- Boeing will hire hundreds of temporary employees at Moses Lake as it prepares for 737 MAX's return to service
- Where a recession might hurt the Puget Sound region worst | Jon Talton
- Amazon is harnessing the 'strange and remarkable' growth of independent sellers with new tools, investments
- FAA cautions airlines on maintenance of sensors that were key to 737 MAX crashes
- Amazon opens its largest campus building anywhere, in India
Panin conspired with others to advertise SpyEye in online cybercrime forums and sold versions of the software for prices ranging from $500 to $10,000, FBI Special Agent Mark Ray testified.
SpyEye was more user-friendly than its predecessors, functioning like “a Swiss army knife of hacking” and allowing users to customize it to choose specific methods of gathering personal information, Ray said. Panin is believed to have sold it to at least 150 clients.
Bendelladj had pleaded guilty but didn’t have a deal with prosecutors. His attorney, Jay Strongwater, said he plans to appeal.
While Panin developed and sold the malware and knew what it would be used for, Bendelladj also used it himself to steal financial information.
Grimberg argued that Panin and Bendelladj are legends in cybercrime communities and that hefty sentences would send a message to other cybercriminals.
“That cyber underworld is watching to see what will be the consequences,” he told U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg.
U.S. Attorney John Horn said the significance of this case can’t be overstated because of SpyEye’s predominance at its height.
“The sentences that were imposed reflect the magnitude of the harm,” he said.
Panin told the judge he feels deep regret.
“I want everyone in this courtroom to understand my actions were inexcusable and inexplicable,” he said.
Bendelladj also said he regrets what he did and knows it was wrong.
“I assure you it won’t happen again,” he told Totenberg. “I have learned my lesson.”
Jon Clay with IT security firm Trend Micro, which helped the FBI investigate SpyEye, said the program wasn’t the most sophisticated but had good code and was reasonably priced.
“He had definitely created some capabilities that were not available in some of the other banking Trojans at the time,” Clay said. “That’s why he was pretty popular among the cybercriminal underground.”
Panin and Bendelladj were indicted in December 2011. Authorities said Bendelladj operated a SpyEye server in the Atlanta area; he was arrested in January 2013 in Bangkok. Panin was arrested later that year when he flew through Atlanta’s airport.
Ray’s testimony offered a glimpse into the world of online marketplaces where cybercriminals advertise, buy and sell malicious software, using aliases to avoid arrest.
Panin advertised SpyEye as early as June 2010 on Darkode.com, a cybercrime forum dismantled by the FBI last July. Before it was taken down, Darkode.com was the most sophisticated of the cybercrime forums, frequented by the cybercrime elite with access limited to those with a trusted connection, Ray said.
With the cover of anonymity and payments made through online currency servers, reputation is extremely important on cybercrime forums, Ray said. After Panin’s June 2010 posting as Gribodemon, Bendelladj — posting as Bx1 — wrote a comment saying he’d worked with him before and vouched for him.
The use of aliases can be frustrating to those who track them, said Willis McDonald, a senior threat researcher at security firm Damballa, which helped the FBI with its investigation. Frequently, a cybercriminal “will disappear into the background and come up with a new alias and a new piece of malware so that trail you’ve been trying to follow to track them down vanishes and they pop up under a new name and you have to start all over again trying to figure out who they are,” he said.
That’s why disabling the infrastructure for a cybercrime network isn’t nearly as effective for stopping the spread of a particular malware as catching the creator, McDonald and Clay said. Both said SpyEye infections had dwindled to negligible numbers within about a year after Panin’s arrest.