Russian accused of mass-spamming charged in US

MILWAUKEE: A 23-year-old Russian man accused of running a worldwide spamming network, which Internet-security experts say on some days accounted for one of every three unwanted e-mails, is scheduled to appear in a Wisconsin courtroom to hear charges against him.

Oleg Y. Nikolaenko, of Moscow, will be arraigned Friday in federal court in Milwaukee. He is charged with violating the CAN-SPAM act by intentionally falsifying header information in commercial e-mail messages and sending at least 2,500 spam e-mails per day, the minimum threshold for the charge. Prosecutors say his network may have sent up to 10 billion messages per day.

The charge carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Nikolaenko was arrested last month at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. He is being tried in Milwaukee because that's where an undercover FBI investigator ordered Viagra through an e-mail distributed by Nikolaenko's alleged operation and received bogus herbal pills instead, said Lance Barnes, the FBI's supervisory special agent of the Milwaukee cyber squad.

In the criminal complaint against Nikolaenko, prosecutors say authorities were tipped off to his involvement after another man pleaded guilty in Missouri federal court to a charge of conspiring to traffic in counterfeit Rolex watches. That defendant told investigators he solicited customers by paying spammers more than $2 million to send a barrage of e-mail ads.

That information led the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission to a spamming operation in Australia, where investigators discovered the workers had exchanged e-mails with Nikolaenko. Subsequent digging linked Nikolaenko to one of the most sophisticated spamming networks in the world - "Mega-D," which investigators said accounted for 32 percent of all worldwide spam.

Nikolaenko's attorney, Chris Van Wagner, said Thursday he hadn't seen the evidence and hoped to have access to it soon.

"We intend to present a rigorous defense to whatever the government may have," Van Wagner said.

Nikolaenko's arrest is unlikely to slow the flood of e-mails touting cheap drugs and male-enhancement pills, said Joe Stewart, the director of malware analysis for Internet-security company SecureWorks Inc. in Atlanta.

The spamming industry is so lucrative that other spammers already are filling the void, Stewart said.

The crippling of Mega-D "is not that significant for the average user," he said. "We need to take more of these guys down in order to have a lasting impact. This is a good start but there's a long way to go."

Investigators say Mega-D was a botnet, short for "robot network," in which users' computers are infected with so-called malware that allows someone to remotely hijack the computer and have it blast out spam e-mails. The Mega-D network included more than half a million infected computers.

Authorities who looked into the Australian spam network found e-mails and payment records linked to a Gmail account. Investigators subpoenaed the account records and found it was registered to Nikolaenko. The Gmail account also had a number of executable files bearing the fingerprints of Mega-D malware, according to the complaint.

Stewart said Mega-D consistently ranked among the worst spamming offenders, at times accounting for as much as a third of all spams sent in a day. But output was lighter on some days than on others.

The complaint noted that in late 2009 the network accounted for 12 percent of the world's spam traffic. However, one security company found a way to drive that traffic down to a fraction of a percent.

FireEye Inc. in Milpitas, California, persuaded 12 to 15 Internet service providers to shut down the computers that were used to control the infected machines. Within days, the botnet's traffic was down to 0.1 percent.

The victory was short-lived, though, as other spammers filled the absence within weeks, FireEye spokesman Phillip Lin said.

"It's a bit of a cat-and-mouse race," Lin said. "The reality is, when there's money to be made in a criminal manner there will be criminals out there."

That's the truly troubling side of spamming, he noted. Along with the annoying e-mails, the botnet technology can deliver malware that secretly records keystrokes so hackers can steal passwords and credit card numbers, along with other schemes that trick people into giving up personal information.

Antivirus programs are helpful at sniffing out some infections, but Stewart and Lin both said the bad guys know which security tools are available and figure out how to evade them.

So how can people protect their computers from malicious agents? Lin suggested users do the basics - update antivirus programs, install a firewall - but he said the real defenders should be Internet service providers, or ISPs.

"If people want additional layers of security they should be demanding that ISPs be more aggressive about securing their networks," he said. "The really effective tools are at the ISP level."- AP

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