Spanish police break up €1 million ransomware crime ring

The gang allegedly infected computers with malware, falsely warning users they did something illegal

Spanish police say they've broken up a crime ring that extorted money from Internet users by accusing them of viewing child pornography or terrorist-related materials and demanding fines.

The type of scam, which uses "ransomware," infected computers with malicious software that displayed a warning purportedly from law enforcement and asking the users to pay a ¬100 (US$135) fine, according to a news release from Spain's Ministry of the Interior. The scam is estimated to have netted the gang up to ¬1 million per year.

Ransomware isn't new and has affected users around the world. In some cases, the malicious software encrypts a user's hard drive until they pay for a password to unlock the files.

Spanish police said they received more than 1,200 ransomware complaints since May 2011, though the number of victims is likely much higher. So far, 11 people have been arrested in connection with the scam, including seven Russians, two Ukranians and two ethnic Georgians. The group ran the operation from Spain's Costa del Sol region, the ministry said.

The accused ringleader is a 27-year-old Russian who was arrested while on holiday in the United Arab Emirates, the ministry said.

The ministry released a six-minute video that shows armed officers rounding up several men in handcuffs. The video also shows police using forensic equipment to examine mobile phones and computers, as well as boxes of cash, one of which was stored in a cabinet under a bathroom sink.

The gang allegedly used pre-paid payment cards such as Ukash, Moneypak and Paysafecard to receive the ransom money. With Ukash, people go to an outlet offering the payment service and exchange money for a 19-digit code. That code can then be used on websites that accept Ukash.

Money was then funneled each day to Russia, the ministry said. The gang allegedly used a variety of methods to launder proceeds, including online gaming portals, electronic payment gateways, virtual currency and credit cards.

Security vendor Trend Micro said it has been collaborating with law enforcement, including Spanish police, throughout 2012 on ransomware investigations. "Trend Micro is very proud that our involvement in this shared intelligence effort produced such good results," the company wrote.

The investigation also involved technical investigators from Spain's national police, Europol and Interpol, the ministry said.

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com. Follow me on Twitter: @jeremy_kirk

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