Australians and New Zealanders were among half a million global victims of computer hackers who used the malicious software Blackshades to hijack personal computers, control webcams and in some cases demand ransom money.
For just $US40 hackers could buy Blackshades, then take control of victims’ computers, steal personal information or snap naked photos or videos without the victims knowing.
The FBI, in announcing the arrest of nearly 100 alleged hackers and the creators and marketers of the software, released a map of the world where potential victims were located.
The map indicated victims in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Alice Springs and Perth and the North and South Islands of New Zealand.
Australian Federal Police are assisting the FBI with the investigation but “for operational reasons, it is not appropriate for the AFP to comment further at this time”, a spokesperson said.
In the past week hackers in Australia, the US, Canada, Asia and Europe complained in chatrooms about their homes being raided and computers seized by authorities.
“As today’s case makes clear, we now live in a world where, for just $40, a cybercriminal halfway across the globe can – with just a click of a mouse – unleash a RAT (remote administration tool) that can spread a computer plague not only on someone’s property, but also on their privacy and most personal spaces,” Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara said.
The FBI’s investigation has shown that Blackshades was purchased by at least several thousand users in more than 100 countries and used to infect more than half a million computers worldwide.
One of the most high-profile victims was Miss Teen USA Cassidy Wolf, who received an email from an unidentified blackmailer who hijacked her computer and, while her laptop was open in her bedroom, was able to take nude photos and videos of her.
The blackmailer was later determined to be Jared Abrahams, a 20-year-old former classmate who was jailed for 18 months after pleading guilty to extortion and unauthorised access of a computer.
Abrahams had threatened to distribute the photos to end Wolf’s “dream of being a model” unless she sent him better quality photos and video and performed a five-minute sex show via Skype.
Among the alleged perpetrators charged in the global takedown was Alex Ycel, the 24-year-old Moldova-based owner of Blackshades and Brendan Johnston, 23, of Los Angeles, who was accused of being paid by Blackshades to help market and sell the malware.
Blackshades allegedly generated sales of $US350,000 between September 2010 and April 2014 with more than 6,000 customer accounts in more than 100 countries.
Victims often allowed criminals to infiltrate their computers via Blackshades by clicking on a link in an email that they mistook for a legitimate email.
In Wolf’s case, she received an infected Facebook message related to teen pageants.
How to protect your computer from Malware
• Make sure you have updated antivirus software on your computer
• Enable automated patches for your operating system and web browser
• Have strong passwords, and don’t use the same passwords for everything
• Use a pop-up blocker
• Only download software—especially free software—from sites you know and trust (malware can also come in downloadable games, file-sharing programs, and customized toolbars)
• Don’t open e-mail attachments in unsolicited e-mails, even if they come from people in your contact list, and never click on a URL contained in an e-mail, even if you think it looks safe. Instead, close out the e-mail and go to the organization’s website directly