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UK student hacker sentenced over gaming Trojan

'Rare' conviction gave cyber cops useful experience

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A UK university student has avoided jail over a malware-based scam that allowed him to break into the personal computers and webmail accounts of an estimated 100 victims.

Paul McLouglin, 22, a Salford University student from Liverpool, tricked victims into downloading password-stealing software, called Istealer, which he had disguised as a code-generation key for online games. McLouglin pleaded guilty on 11 April, prior to a sentencing hearing at London's Southwark Crown Court on Monday where he received an eight months sentence – suspended for 12 months.

Istealer is designed to capture the login credentials of webmail and other online accounts (email, IM, online gaming) before uploading them to a remote server, where they can be retrieved by a hacker controlling the program.

Suspicions that something was amiss arose back in June 2009 after a US resident complained to University bosses that passwords to her webmail and other online accounts had been compromised.

Police were brought in to investigate the case, eventually tracing the attack back to backdoor software posing as gaming utilities that had been uploaded by McLouglin onto file-sharing networks. Police, working closely with McAfee and the University of Salford, identified the encrypted details of an FTP (file transfer) server embedded within the malware, a discovery that identified McLouglin as a prime suspect in the case.

Investigators reckon the miscreant was motivated by a desire to get free gaming facilities rather than enrich himself via the ruse. McLouglin is reckoned to have accessed at least 20 individual accounts belonging to the estimated 100 victims hit by the scam. It seems he turned cybercrook in order to boost his online gaming scores.

The case is a rare conviction under under section 3A of the Computer Misuse Act 1990, which covers the adaptation of an article, in this case a computer program, to be used to gain unauthorised access to computers.

DI Colin Wetherill of the Police Central eCrime Unit commented:

"A prosecution and conviction for this particular offence is rare. In our efforts to keep the internet a safe place we will actively investigate and seek to prosecute – in conjunction the CPS – online criminals making use of these techniques, while applying the experience gained to our investigations into those involved in more serious and organised forms of cybercrime.

"The PCeU worked very closely with McAfee and acknowledges their contribution in gathering evidence that enabled an early arrest to be made and a successful conviction. This police and industry partnership approach has prevented thousands of people from having their personal information harvested and potentially prevented criminals from making money from UK victims," he added. ®

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