A mid-level organiser of an international online bank theft ring that relied on the Zeus Trojan faces up to 45 years in prison when he is sentenced early next year, after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit bank fraud and possession of false IDs.

Nikolay Garifulin, 27, of Volgograd, Russia, was accused by the US prosecutors of collecting and distributing the stolen money for the masterminds behind the scheme. Garifulin and two others were charged with running the money mule operation that received the stolen money and shepherded it back to the bosses.

Prosecutors have now gotten guilty decisions for 27 of 37 defendants in the operation, with eight more still on the run, and two who have entered deferred prosecution agreements.

Those involved were foreign exchange students in the US on visas who set up bank accounts using false identification documents. Funds from compromised accounts were transferred into these phony accounts, then transferred to other accounts or were withdrawn and smuggled overseas in cash to the organisers of the criminal operation. Some of the funds wound up in Eastern Europe.

Legitimate accounts were compromised by infecting victims' machines with Zeus, which logged bank account passwords and sent them to criminals' servers. The criminals used these passwords to break into accounts and transfer funds, according to the US Attorney's office.

The thieves stole thousands of dollars at a time for a total of more than $3 million (£1.9 million) before they were caught. While Garifulin faces 45 years, the stiffest penalty so far to one of the leaders of the mule operation was 48 months.