The six Estonian nationals and one Russian national allegedly infected the computers -- at least 500,000 in the United States and the rest in 100 other nations -- with malware that allowed the cyber hijackers to secretly reroute the computers to Web sites and advertisements that entitled them to be paid, the Justice Department said in a release.
The malware prevented the installation of anti-virus software and operating system updates, leaving the computers vulnerable. The victims included computers at U.S. government agencies, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, educational institutions, non-profit organizations, commercial businesses and individuals, the Justice Department said.
The defendants are Vladimir Tsastsin, 31; Timur Gerassimenko, 31; Dmitri Jegorov, 33; Valeri Aleksejev, 31; Konstantin Poltev, 28; and Anton Ivanov, 26 -- all Estonian nationals arrested in Estonia Tuesday -- and Andrey Taame, 31, a Russian national who remained at large Wednesday.
The U.S. attorney's office will seek to have the six being held in Estonia extradited to the United States.
"These defendants gave new meaning to the term 'false advertising,'" U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said. "As alleged, they were international cyber bandits who hijacked millions of computers at will and re-routed them to Internet Web sites and advertisements of their own choosing -- collecting millions in undeserved commissions for all the hijacked computer clicks and Internet ads they fraudulently engineered. The international cyber threat is perhaps the most significant challenge faced by law enforcement and national security agencies today, and this case is just perhaps the tip of the Internet iceberg."
FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge Janice Fedarcyk said the suspects generated $14 million in illegitimate income.
Fedarcyk noted cyber thieves now have a global reach just like the legitimate economy.
"The Internet is pervasive because it is such a useful tool, but it is a tool that can be exploited by those with bad intentions and a little know-how," she said.
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