The arrest of six members of a computer hacking gang in Estonia breaks up an Internet gang that infected millions of computers worldwide and hijacked clickthroughs by redirecting them from legitimate commercial websites to the ring’s fraudulent websites, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said. A seventh gang member is being pursued in Russia.
Of the computers infected with malware, at least 500,000 were in the United States, including computers belonging to U.S. government agencies, such as NASA; educational institutions; non-profit organizations; commercial businesses; and individuals. The malware secretly altered the settings on infected computers enabling the defendants to digitally hijack Internet searches and re-route computers to certain websites and advertisements, which entitled the defendants to be paid. The defendants subsequently received fees each time these websites or ads were clicked on or viewed by users. The malware also prevented the installation of anti-virus software and operating system updates on infected computers, leaving those computers and their users unable to detect or stop the defendants’ malware, and exposing them to attacks by other viruses.
FBI Assistant Director in Charge Janice Fedarck said: “The defendants hijacked 4 million computers in a hundred countries, including half a million computers in the United States, rerouting Internet traffic and generating $14 million in illegitimate income.”
As alleged in the Indictment, from 2007 until October 2011, the defendants controlled and operated various companies that masqueraded as legitimate publisher networks (the “Publisher Networks”) in the Internet advertising industry. The Publisher Networks entered into agreements with ad brokers under which they were paid based on the number of times that Internet users clicked on the links for certain websites or advertisements, or based on the number of times that certain advertisements were displayed on certain websites. Thus, the more traffic to the advertisers’ websites and display ads, the more money the defendants earned under their agreements with the ad brokers. As alleged in the Indictment, the defendants fraudulently increased the traffic to the websites and advertisements that would earn them money. They accomplished this by making it appear to advertisers that the Internet traffic came from legitimate clicks and ad displays on the defendants’ Publisher Networks when, in actuality, it had not.
To carry out the scheme, the defendants and their co-conspirators used what are known as “rogue” Domain Name System (“DNS”) servers, and malware (“the Malware”) that was designed to alter the DNS server settings on infected computers. Victims’ computers became infected with the Malware when they visited certain websites or downloaded certain software to view videos online. The Malware altered the DNS server settings on victims’ computers to route the infected computers to rogue DNS servers controlled and operated by the defendants and their co-conspirators. The re-routing took two forms that are described in detail below: “click hijacking” and “advertising replacement fraud.” The Malware also prevented the infected computers from receiving anti-virus software updates or operating system updates that otherwise might have detected the Malware and stopped it. In addition, the infected computers were also left vulnerable to infections by other viruses.
When the user of an infected computer clicked on a search result link displayed through a search engine query, the Malware caused the computer to be re-routed to a different website. Instead of being brought to the website to which the user asked to go, the user was brought to a website designated by the defendants. Each “click” triggered payment to the defendants under their advertising agreements. This click hijacking occurred for clicks on unpaid links that appear in response to a user’s query as well as clicks on “sponsored” links or advertisements that appear in response to a user’s query—often at the top of, or to the right of, the search results—thus causing the search engines to lose money. Several examples of click hijacking illustrated in the Indictment include:
–When the user of an infected computer clicked on the domain name link for the official website of Apple-iTunes, the user was instead taken to a website for a business unaffiliated with Apple Inc. that purported to sell Apple software.
–When the user of an infected computer clicked on a domain name link for Netflix, the user was instead taken to a website for an unrelated business called “BudgetMatch.”
–When the user of an infected computer clicked on the domain name link for the official government website of the Internal Revenue Service, the user was instead taken to the website for H&R Block, a major tax preparation business.
Advertising Replacement Fraud
Using the DNS Changer Malware and rogue DNS servers, the defendants also replaced legitimate advertisements on websites with substituted advertisements that triggered payments to the defendants. Several examples of the advertising replacement fraud illustrated in the Indictment include:
–When the user of an infected computer visited the home page of the Wall Street Journal, a featured advertisement for the American Express “Plum Card” had been fraudulently replaced with an ad for “Fashion Girl LA.”
–When the user of an infected computer visited the Amazon.com website, a prominent advertisement for Windows Internet Explorer 8 had been fraudulently replaced with an ad for an email marketing business.
–When the user of an infected computer visited the ESPN website, a prominent advertisement for “Dr. Pepper Ten” had been fraudulently replaced with an ad for a timeshare business.
The defendants earned millions of dollars under their advertising agreements, not by legitimately displaying advertisements through their Publisher Networks, but rather by using the Malware to fraudulently drive Internet traffic to the websites and ads that would earn them more money. As a result, the defendants and their co-conspirators earned at least $14 million in ill-gotten gains through click hijacking and advertisement replacement fraud. The Indictment further alleges that the defendants laundered the proceeds of the scheme through numerous companies including, among others, Rove Digital, an Estonian corporation, and others listed in the Indictment.
The defendants’ scheme also deprived legitimate website operators and advertisers of substantial monies and advertising revenue. In addition to search engines losing revenue as a result of click hijacking on their sponsored search result listings, advertisers lost money by paying for clicks that they believed came from interested computer users, but which were in fact fraudulently engineered by the defendants. Furthermore, the defendants’ conduct risked reputational harm to businesses that paid to advertise on the Internet—but that had no knowledge or desire for computer users to be directed to their websites or advertisements through the fraudulent means used by the defendants.