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Ukraine: Tracking down the hackers

Law enforcement closes in on one group of cyber criminals — but more work away.

Cyber Crime Hackers
Two Austrian participants of the "Chaos Communication Camp - The International Hacker Meeting 2007," sit with laptops at a tent on a former Soviet airfield in Finowfurt north of Berlin, Aug. 8, 2007. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

KIEV, Ukraine — Amid the steady drumbeat of dismal economic news from the former Soviet Union, one sector is exhibiting remarkable growth: cyber crime.

Industry experts say that the ex-communist republics are one of the world’s largest sources of malicious software, or malware — pernicious viruses that surreptitiously infect computers to extract personal financial information, such as credit card numbers, bank accounts and passwords.

The region’s pre-eminence in the world of e-crime was in full evidence last month, as law enforcement officials from four countries, including the FBI and Ukraine’s state security service (SBU), announced that they had broken a criminal ring responsible for some $70 million in thefts in the past few years. Five of the group’s ring leaders came from Ukraine.

The group used the Zeus Trojan virus, also known as the ZBot, and reportedly aimed to steal some $220 million worldwide. In the United States, 92 people have been charged and 39 arrested in connection with the scam, while a further 19 were nabbed in a dawn police raid in London.

Operation Trident Breach,” as the FBI called the anti-cyber crime campaign, began in May 2009, when agents in Omaha, Neb. were alerted to suspicious transactions involving 46 separate bank accounts.

“We believe we have disrupted a highly organized criminal network, which has used sophisticated methods to siphon large amounts of cash from many innocent peoples’ accounts, causing immense personal anxiety and significant financial harm, which of course, banks have had to repay at considerable cost to the economy,” FBI Deputy Chief Inspector Terry Wilson said in an official statement.

At the same time, officials announced that Ukraine’s SBU had arrested five people who were “key subjects responsible for this overarching scheme.” SBU authorities later revealed that the five were based in the eastern city of Donetsk, and that another 15 individuals were under investigation, but it was still unclear their level of involvement. The Russian author of the ZBot, however, still remains at large.

Trident Breach’s success gives hope that eastern Europe — long-considered a black hole for cyber crime enforcement — will now open up to further international efforts.