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Feds accuse 37 of being Zeus 'money mules'

More than $3m scammed

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Federal prosecutors in New York City have charged 37 low-level crime-gang members with participating in a scheme that defrauded banks out of more than $3m using the Zeus Trojan.

Many of the charges were filed against Russian nationals accused of opening hundreds of bank accounts to launder money transferred from people who had been infected by the crimeware. The so-called money mules allegedly kept a cut and wired the remainder to associates in Eastern Europe. The charges were unsealed on Thursday, a day after UK prosecutors filed charges against 11 alleged Zeus money mules from Eastern Europe.

The charges, which are the culmination of a year-long investigation, were filed by the US Attorney's office in Manhattan in 21 separate cases. The defendants include mule managers and recruiters, an individual who obtained false foreign passports and the mules themselves. Ten of the defendants were arrested on Thursday and another 10 were already arrested. The remaining 17 are still at large.

Typical of the suspects are three Russian citizens accused of coming to the US on student visas and then using multiple forged passports to open bank accounts. One of the trio, Artem Semenov, was described as an experienced money mule who was arrested by New York police in December after trying to open one of many accounts using identification documents that bore his photo but the name of an alias.

He never appeared at a court appointment scheduled for February, but he allegedly continued to launder stolen money in other fraudulent accounts he had set up. He also allegedly recruited Almira Rakhmatulina and Julia Shpirko and and helped them launder money using their own bogus bank accounts. He is one of the defendants who still hasn't been caught.

A separate complaint that was filed under seal in February accused Anton Yuferitsyn of recruiting money mules. The Russian national, who used the alias Jack Daniels, was caught in a sting conducted by a Russian-speaking confidential witness. He pleaded guilty in June to one count of money laundering and was ordered to serve 10 months in prison and pay $38,413 in restitution.

Yet another individual, Alexander Kireev, allegedly used three fraudulent bank accounts into which he laundered more than $100,000 from four victims, one of which was a "municipal entity in Massachusetts." Three other defendants, Jamal Beyrouti, Lorenzo Babbo and Vincenzo Vitello, allegedly opened business accounts in the name of shell companies. They laundered a combined $1.2m in stolen funds, according to court documents.

Zeus is the name of a software kit sold in underground online forums that gives criminals most of the pieces they need to build and maintain botnets used to steal bank account information. Over the past several years, it has emerged as a major source of fraud for banks. A large number of competing crime gangs use the DIY package to infect unsuspecting PC users and to maintain command and control servers that siphon bank account passwords from them.

Key to the success of these schemes is the money mule, who receives transfers from the compromised accounts and then sends a portion to people higher up in the criminal organization. To evade suspicion, the mule accounts are generally located in the same country as the compromised accounts and the balances are below thresholds (in the US generally about $10,000) that automatically trigger manual checks by fraud investigators.

No one knows how many PCs Zeus has infected over the years, but the number is widely believed to be in the millions. At time of writing, a service known as Zeus Tracker was monitoring 167 separate command and control channels that bear Zeus signatures. A single server can control hundreds of thousands of infected machines. ®

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