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A 39-year-old Italian man accused of running a porn dialler scam has been charged with fraud and virus distribution.

Italian police say the unnamed suspect stood to net €104,000 from a scam which tricked users into running a virus, called Marq-A, which altered the Internet dial-up number used by victims to a premium rate line, La Repubblica reports.

Marq-A (AKA Zelig), first seen last month, directs innocent computer users to a website where a malicious program posing as a screensaver can be downloaded. If run, the virus changes the phone number used for accessing the Internet to a premium-rate number based in Aruba, in the Dutch Antilles.

Investigators claim that more than 57,000 minutes were logged on the premium-rate number at an estimated cost of €104,000. If the virus had been allowed to continue for a month, it is estimated over €1m would have been collected.

The Italian financial police were able to freeze the money accrued through the 'viral marketing' scheme. Funds were first sent to a New York bank account, then transferred via Venezuela before ending up in an account belonging to a ghost company in Aruba.

The text of the virus was Italian, so it had little effect on the rest of the world.

"Marq-A is one of only a few viruses which attempt to make money. Many viruses cause severe disruption and financial loss to companies worldwide, but offer no financial gain to their author," said Carole Theriault, security consultant at Sophos.

"It is positive to see that authorities in different countries can work together in order to prevent these crimes. If cyber criminals believe that they can be traced and made to pay for their actions, maybe they will think twice about releasing their malicious code."

Marq arrived in the form of an email with the subject line "The moment is cathartic", which directed users to download a supposed screensaver called zelig.scr. Flavio Oreglio, one of the stars of the Italian TV show "Zelig", is the author of a book called "The moment is cathartic" and this will have encouraged some recipients to download the malicious program.

Zelig is also the name of a 1980s Woody Allen film about a man who travels through recent history, assuming a number of different guises.

News of the charges in Italy come as Microsoft today announced it is setting up a $5 million fund providing rewards for those who provide information that leads to the arrest and conviction of virus authors. ®

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