Criminals will continue to use Zeus Trojan, expert says

Even after recent arrests, the Zeus Trojan is a popular tool for stealing money online

Despite dozens of recent arrests targeting large online fraud organizations, other criminals are continuing to use the Zeus Trojan and other Web tools to steal identities and money from Internet users, one cybersecurity expert said Tuesday.

The arrests last week of dozens of people in the U.S., U.K. and Ukraine were a "massive coup" for law enforcement, said Patrick Peterson, CEO of Authentication Metrics, an e-mail authentication vendor. Those connected are suspected of being part of a huge criminal organization that has stolen about US$70 million from small businesses and other organizations in the U.S.

"This is really a breath of fresh air and a great success after a long time and a lot of frustration," Peterson said during a presentation at a meeting of the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group in Arlington, Virginia. "The good news is that we're seeing some great progress from law enforcement."

The not-so-good news is that it's easy and relatively inexpensive for prospective criminals to launch their own online fraud operation, Peterson said. The Zeus Trojan, a highly configurable piece of malware designed to steal personal information, is available for sale at several websites where cybercriminals gather, and there are dozens of versions available, he said.

In addition, Fragus, and other exploit kits, make it easy for cybercriminals to target specific vulnerabilties that may be on a computer, he said. And vulnerabilities in servers and browsers make it easy for criminals to hijack legitimate websites and send Web users to sites where they unknowingly download malware.

Fragus gives criminals a simple interface to check which applications they want to target, said Peterson, a Cisco Systems fellow. The exploit kit includes a reporting tool connected back to developers so that users can ask them to target new applications or operating systems, he said.

For an investment of about $2,500, a criminal could buy versions of Zeus and Fragus and get a thriving online fraud operation running, Peterson said.

These new cybercriminals have sophisticated systems in place to measure the success of their tools. Data later obtained from the Russian makers of the Mpack malware kit, which began appearing in 2006, showed that more than 13 percent of the computers in the U.S. that went to a defaced website became infected. More than 20 percent of the computers from Japan and Germany became infected when encountering Mpack malware, and more than 50 percent of computers in Romania became infected, Peterson said.

In addition, cybercriminals continue to use spamming tools to drive traffic to phishing websites, as well as affiliate programs with partners linking to exploited websites, he said. Many large criminal operations are using so-called money mules, people in targeted countries who will wire stolen money back to criminals overseas, he said. U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation officials said the Ukrainian Zeus operation employed about 3,500 money mules in the U.S.

Money mules are needed, because a U.S. cybercriminal targeting U.S. residents would be "rich for a day" before the FBI showed up at his house, Peterson said. With a money mule operation, it's more difficult to track the money, with dozens of mules sending small amounts of money from multiple wiring locations.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is

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