The Russian man who created the SpyEye Trojan used to attack countless millions of online bank accounts has pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in an Atlanta court room.
Arrested last summer after he was sent to the city by authorities in the Dominican Republic (where he was having a holiday), Aleksandr Andreevich Panin, was eventually trapped by an FBI sting in which he was fooled into selling the malware to an undercover agent posing as a criminal.
Panin was accused of conspiring with co-defendant Hamza Bendelladj, extradited to the US last year, of developing and distributing SpyEye on an ongoing basis between 2009 and 2011.
It sounds like just another arrest, and in truth it won’t stop the many gangs that use his software and other software like it, but it is still an important moment in malware history. Hitherto, the makers of serious malware like SpyEye (which merged with fellow bank Trojan Zeus in 2010 to create a super-Trojan) have got away with it, no consequences. Now they will know that even hiding in the expanse of Russia and other countries won’t be good enough any longer.
It’s probably no coincidence that the court appearance follows closely after the arrest in Russia of ‘Paunch’, the alleged creator of another hugely important piece of malware, the Blackhole Exploit Kit.
Malware authors are now vulnerable to arrest because they are being competently hunted under the US Operation Clean Slate, backed up by bot hunters Microsoft and Trend Micro. Governments in places like Russia seem to be co-operating with the US and others after years when nothing was done and criminals roamed free.
The FBI said that Panin sold the malware to 150 clients who paid between $1,000 (£600) and $8,500 (£5,200) to get their hands on it. It was these customers around the world who used the program to attack and rob online banks accounts, often with staggering success.
At time the bank industry seemed to be powerless to stop SpyEye, just as it had been with Zeus, its merged predecessor that pioneered the bank malware niche.
Things started to go wrong for Panin when in February 2011 the FBI seized control of a key server located, as it happens, in Atlanta. As well as linking him to the malware, this version contained incriminating evidence of the malware’s full feature set still and its ongoing development.
The US authorities have said the number of SpyEye-infected machines was around 1.4 million but the true scale of the international damage it caused must be far greater. Guilty plea or not, Panin now faces up to 30 years in prison.
“This investigation highlights the importance of the FBI’s focus on the top echelon of cyber criminals. The apprehension of Mr. Panin means that one of the world’s top developers of malicious software is no longer in a position to create computer programs that can victimize people around the world," said FBI Atlanta Field Office, Ricky Maxwell.
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