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The Zombie Hunters: On the trail of cyberextortionists
The Zombie Hunters: On the trail of cyberextortionists
The Zombie Hunters: On the trail of cyberextortionists
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Forwarded from: Brian Reilly
by EVAN RATLIFF
The New Yorker
October 10, 2005
One afternoon this spring, a half-dozen young computer engineers sat
in the headquarters of Prolexic, an Internet-security company in
Hollywood, Florida, puzzling over an attack on one of the company's
clients, a penile enhancement business called MensNiche.com. The
engineers, gathered in the company's network operations center, or
noc, on the fourth floor of a new office building, were monitoring
Internet traffic on fifty-inch wall-mounted screens. Anna Claiborne,
one of the company's senior network engineers, wandered into the noc
in jeans and a T-shirt. The MensNiche attacker had launched an assault
on the company's Web site at 4 a.m., and Claiborne had spent the night
in the office fending it off. "Hence," she said, "I look like hell
MensNiche's problems had begun a week earlier, with a flood of fake
data requests=97what is known as a distributed denial-of-service
attack=97from computers around the world. Although few, if any, of those
computers' owners knew it, their machines had been hijacked by
hackers; they had become what programmers call "zombies," and had been
set loose on MensNiche. The result was akin to what occurs when
callers jam the phone lines during a television contest: with so many
computers trying to connect, almost none could get through, and the
company was losing business.
The first wave of the attack was easily filtered by Prolexic's
automated system. The assailant then disguised his zombies as
legitimate Web users, fooling the filters so well that Claiborne
refused to tell me how it was done, for fear that others would adopt
the same tactic. She spent the night examining the requests one by one
as they scrolled by=97interrogating each zombie, trying to find a key to
the attacker's strategy.
"He's clever, and he's been trying everything," Claiborne said. "If we
ever find out who it is, seriously, I'd be willing to buy a plane
ticket, fly over, and punch him in the face."
Prolexic, which was founded in 2003 by a twenty-seven-year-old college
dropout named Barrett Lyon, is a twenty-four-hour, seven-days-a-week
operation. An engineer is posted in the noc at all times, to monitor
Prolexic's four data hubs, which are in Phoenix, Vancouver, Miami, and
London. The hubs contain powerful computers designed to absorb the
brunt of data floods and are, essentially, massive holding pens for
zombies. Any data travelling to Prolexic's clients pass through this
hardware. The company, which had revenues of four million dollars in
its first year, now has more than eighty customers.
Lyon's main business is protecting his clients from
cyberextortionists, who demand payments from companies in return for
leaving them alone. Although Lyon is based in Florida, the attackers
he deals with might be in Kazakhstan or China, and they usually don't
"It's an insanely stressful job," Claiborne told me. "You are the
middleman between people who are losing thousands or millions of
dollars and somebody who really wants to make that person lose
thousands or millions of dollars." When the monitors' graphs begin to
spike, indicating that an attack is under way, she said, "it's like
looking at the ocean and seeing a wall of water three hundred feet
high coming toward you."
Only a few years ago, online malfeasance was largely the province of
either technically adept hackers (or "crackers," as ill-intentioned
hackers are known), who were in it for the thrill or for bragging
rights, or novices (called "script kiddies"), who unleashed viruses as
pranks. But as the Web's reach has expanded real-world criminals have
discovered its potential. Mobsters and con men, from Africa to Eastern
Europe, have gone online. Increasingly, cyberextortionists are tied to
gangs that operate in several countries and hide within a labyrinth of
"When the attack starts, the ticker starts for that company," Lyon
said. "It's a mental game that you've been playing, and if you make a
mistake it causes the whole thing to go down. You are terrified."
Lyon, as usual, was wearing shorts and flip-flops. He has blond hair
and a trim build, with narrow hazel eyes that were framed by dark
circles of fatigue. A poster for the 1983 movie "WarGames"=97a major
influence=97hung above his desk, on which were four computer monitors:
one for writing program code, one for watching data traffic, one for
surfing the Web, and one for chatting with customers. Lyon leaned over
and showed me a program that he had created to identify the zombies
attacking MensNiche. When he ran it, a list of countries scrolled up
the screen: the United States, China, Cambodia, Haiti, even Iraq.
Examining the list of zombie addresses, Lyon picked one and ran a
command called a "traceroute." The program followed the zombie's path
from MensNiche back to a computer called NOCC.ior.navy.mil=97part of the
United States Navy's Network Operations Center for the Indian Ocean
Region. "Well, that's great," he said, laughing. Lyon's next
traceroute found that another zombie was on the Department of
Defense's Military Sealift Command network. The network forces of the
United States military had been conscripted in an attack on a Web site
for penis enlargement.
Michael Alculumbre's first communication from the extortionists
arrived on a Thursday evening in August, 2004. An e-mail message was
sent to him just after 8 p.m. at Protx, an online-payment processing
company based in London, where he is the chief executive officer. The
subject line read, simply, "Contact us," and the return
email@example.com=97offered no clues to the
message's origin. The note was cordial and succinct, written in
stilted English. "Hello," it began. "We attack your servers for some
time. If you want save your business, you should pay 10.000$ bank wire
to our bank account. When we receive money, we stop attack
immediately. If we will not receive money, we will attack your
business 1 month." The note said that ten thousand dollars would buy
Protx a year's worth of protection. "Think about how much money you
lose, while your servers are down. Thanks John Martino." Alculumbre
had never heard of John Martino. He decided to ignore the demand.
Two months later, Alculumbre's network technician called him at home.
He said that customers were complaining that the system was off-line.
By the time Alculumbre arrived at the office, the source of the
disruption was clear. Thousands of computers were inundating Protx's
Web site with fake data requests. Many of Protx's legitimate customers
received the Internet equivalent of a busy signal=97a message saying
that the company's servers weren't responding.
Every minute that the Web site remained off-line, Protx's business
suffered. As the company's engineers struggled to contain the attack,
another ten-thousand-dollar e-mail demand arrived, this time signed
"Tony Martino." Again, Alculumbre ignored it. He had received a call
from an agent of the British National Hi-Tech Crime Unit, which had
been monitoring the attack. The agent let him know that paying Martino
wasn't an option; the extortionist would only return. Beyond that
advice, there wasn't much that the N.H.T.C.U. could do to help. By the
time Alculumbre's engineers were able to get the site running, it had
been disabled for almost two days.
Alculumbre heard from Tony Martino again the following April, when he
received a message offering a thousand-dollar-a-month protection-money
payment plan. Before he could respond, an army of up to seventy
thousand zombies ripped through Protx's defenses and knocked its Web
site off-line. This time, it took Protx's engineers three days to
fight off the attack.
The company now spends roughly five hundred thousand dollars a year to
protect itself=97fifty times what Martino had asked for. This includes a
hundred-thousand-dollar-a-year security contract with Prolexic.
Martino, it turned out, had been targeting Lyon's clients for months
before he hit Protx.
"This is very similar to the pubs and clubs in London forty years ago
that used to pay money to not have their premises smashed up," Mick
Deats, the deputy head of the N.H.T.C.U., told me. "It's just a
straight, old-fashioned protection racket, with a completely new
method." The cyberextortionists also make use of an elaborate
money-laundering system, Deats said. "They have companies registered
all over the place, passing the money through them."
"I started prosecuting network-attack cases in 1992, and back then it
was more the sort of lone hackers," said Christopher Painter, the
deputy chief of the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section
at the Department of Justice. Today, he says, "you have organized
criminal groups that are adopting technical sophistication."
The most potent weapon for Web gangsters is the botnet. A bot, broadly
speaking, is a remote-controlled software program that is installed on
a computer without the owner's knowledge. Hackers use viruses, worms,
or automated programs to scan the Internet in search of potential
zombies. One recent study found that a new P.C., attached to the
Internet without protective software, will on average be infected in
about twenty minutes.
In the most common scenario, the bots surreptitiously connect
hundreds, or thousands, of zombies to a channel in a chat room. The
process is called "herding," and a herd of zombies is called a botnet.
The herder then issues orders to the zombies, telling them to send
unsolicited e-mail, steal personal information, or launch attacks.
Herders also trade, rent, and sell their zombies. "The botnet is the
little engine that makes the evil of the Internet work," Chris Morrow,
a senior network-security engineer at M.C.I., said. "It makes spam
work. It makes identity fraud work. It makes extortion, in this case,
Less than five years ago, experts considered a several-thousand-zombie
botnet extraordinary. Lyon now regularly faces botnets of fifty
thousand zombies or more. According to one study, fifteen per cent of
new zombies are from China. A British Internet-security firm,
Clearswift, recently predicted that "botnets will, unless matters
change dramatically, proliferate to the point where much of the
Internet . . . comes to resemble a mosaic of botnets." Meanwhile, the
resources of law enforcement are limited=97the N.H.T.C.U., for example,
has sixty agents handling everything from child pornography to
Extortionists often prefer to target online industries, such as
pornography and gambling, that occupy a gray area, and may be
reluctant to seek help from law enforcement. Such businesses account
for most of Prolexic's clients. I asked Lyon how he felt about the
companies he defended. "Everybody makes a living somehow," he said.
"It's not my job to worry about how they do it."
I asked whether that applied to extortionists as well. After a pause,
he said, "I guess I'm partial to dot-commers."
Several weeks later, he called me to say that he'd reconsidered his
answer. "The Internet is all about connecting things, communicating
and sharing information, bits, pieces of data," he said. "A
denial-of-service attack is the exact opposite of that. It is taking
one person's will and imposing it on a bunch of others." In any case,
Lyon added, his clients now included mainstream businesses=97a Japanese
game company, foreign-exchange traders, and a multibillion-dollar
corporation that wanted to have additional security in the days before
Lyon first gained a measure of online fame in 2003, with a project
called Opte, in which he created a visual map of the entire
Internet=97its backbone, transfer points, major servers. After reading
that a similar project had taken several months to complete, he bet a
friend that he could do it in a day, and won. (A gorgeously rendered
print of the map=97which Lyon licenses free of charge=97appeared in a
travelling exhibition on the future of design.)
Lyon's obsessive interest in computer networks began early. In the
third grade at a Sacramento, California, private school for
learning-disabled children=97Prolexic's name derives from Lyon's pride
in overcoming severe dyslexia=97he and a friend hacked a simple computer
game. In junior high school, Lyon discovered the Internet, and with a
friend, Peter Avalos, he soon founded a company called TheShell.com,
which provided accounts to chat-room users. But his grades suffered,
and, after high school, he failed a year's worth of classes at
California State University at Chico.
When a friend he met online, Robert Brown, offered Lyon a job at his
computer-security company, Network Presence, he quit school and took
it. Brown sent him off to secure the network of a large insurance
company in the Midwest. Lyon was nineteen and, he said, "I looked
thirteen. So I wore a suit every day, and I worked my ass off for
those guys." He burned out after two years=97"I didn't know you had to
meter yourself"=97and returned to school, this time at California State
University at Sacramento. There, Lyon signed up for philosophy
classes, dumped his computers in a closet, and joined the rowing team.
But he couldn't get away from computers entirely; he still took
assignments from his old employer, and he and Avalos (who graduated
from the United States Naval Academy and has recently returned from
flying P-3s in Iraq) continued to operate TheShell.com. The company's
clients tended to be advanced Internet users, and this had the effect
of bringing the site to the attention of hackers. At one point, Lyon
was fighting off several zombie attacks a day.
In August, 2002, Dana Corbo, the C.E.O. of Don Best Sports, called
Network Presence for help. Don Best, which is based in Las Vegas, is a
kind of Bloomberg for the gambling world, providing betting lines for
both real-world and online casinos. The company had ignored an
e-mailed extortion demand for two hundred thousand dollars, and it was
under attack. Network Presence sent Lyon.
The next day, Lyon and another engineer flew to Las Vegas and helped
Don Best's engineers set up powerful new servers. Lyon's strategy
worked: the attackers gave up. Corbo treated them to a night out in
Vegas, with dinner in front of the Bellagio fountains. (He also paid
Network Presence a fee.)
Lyon still wanted to find out who was behind the attacks. He and Brown
scanned the traffic data, found a zombie, and, thanks to an opening in
Microsoft Windows, were able to see what other computers it had been
connected to. This led them to a chat server in Kazakhstan; when they
connected to it, they saw more attacks in progress. They notified the
F.B.I. and the Secret Service, but, Brown said, "they sort of threw up
their arms, because it was in Kazakhstan." To Lyon, however, the
lesson was clear: with clever techniques and a little luck, any
attacker could be found.
In the late spring of 2003, Mickey Richardson, the general manager of
Betcris, a Costa Rican-based gambling firm, received an extortion
e-mail. (Online bookmaking, which is illegal in the United States, has
flourished in Costa Rica and the Caribbean since the
mid-nineteen-nineties.) The letter requested five hundred dollars in
eGold=97an online currency=97and was followed by an attack that crippled
Betcris's Web site, its main source of revenue. Richardson couldn't
afford to have the site disabled. He paid the five hundred dollars.
The extortionists began hitting other offshore bookmakers. One firm
after another paid up, anywhere from three thousand to thirty-five
thousand dollars, which they wired to addresses in Russia and Latvia.
Richardson expected that he, too, would be hit again. He heard about
Don Best's successful defense and called Lyon. But Lyon was back in
school, and reluctant to take the job. Instead, he told Richardson to
buy a server that was specially designed to filter out attacks. "The
box," as Richardson called it, cost about twenty thousand dollars.
Over the phone, Lyon helped Richardson's information-technology
manager, Glenn Lebumfacil, configure it.
A few months later, Richardson got another e-mail from the
extortionists. It arrived just before Thanksgiving, one of the busiest
betting periods of the year, and it asked for forty thousand dollars.
The e-mail said:
If you choose not to pay for our help, then you will probably not be
in business much longer, as you will be under attack each weekend for
the next 20 weeks, or until you close your doors.
Richardson believed that he had "everything in place to protect the
store," and he refused to pay.
When the attack came, it took less than twenty minutes to overwhelm
the box. The data flood brought down both Betcris and its Internet
service provider. After a few days of trying in vain to make the box
work, Lebumfacil called Lyon in a panic. "Hey, man, remember that
thing you set up for us?" he said. "It just got blown away."
Lyon saw a business opportunity. He quit school again and started a
company, with Betcris as his first customer. He knew that he couldn't
just add capacity to Betcris's system to capture the zombies, as he
had with Don Best, because Costa Rica wasn't wired for that sort of
system=97there wasn't enough capacity in the entire country. So he
decided to build his own network in the United States and use it to
draw the attackers away from Betcris. The extortionists would think
they were attacking a relatively defenseless system in Central America
but would find themselves up against Lyon's machines instead.
Richardson, meanwhile, was stalling for time with the extortionists,
claiming a medical emergency. "I guess you did not take my warning
seriously," came the reply. "The excuse that you were in the hospital
does not matter to me." The correspondence became increasingly
belligerent. "Sorry moron but I am just having so much fun fucking
with you," one e-mail said, raising the price to sixty thousand
dollars. Richardson responded by offering the extortionists jobs in
Betcris's I.T. department. "I appreciate the offer to do work for you,
but we are completely booked until the football season is over," one
of them replied.
As Lyon brought his system online, the confrontation turned into a
chess match. "Every time Barrett would change something, these guys
would change something else," Brian Green, the C.E.O. of Digital
Solutions, Betcris's Internet service provider, said. "They threw
wrenches, they threw everything they could at Betcris."
Finally, after three weeks, the attacker gave up. "I bet you feel real
stupid that you did not keep your word," he wrote. "I figure by now
you have lost 5 times what we asked and by the end of the year your
decision will cost you more than 20 times what we asked." Richardson
says that those numbers may not have been far off.
By then, everyone in the insular gaming world seemed to have heard
that Lyon could stop zombie attacks, and he was getting calls from
Jamaica, Costa Rica, and Panama. "It was kind of like stumbling into
this strange little community in the middle of nowhere, where
everybody worships a weird stone," Lyon said. "They all had
superstitions about when they were going to be attacked."
Lyon decided, once again, to trace the source of the attack. He and
Dayton Turner, a goateed twenty-four-year-old engineer he had hired,
allowed one of their own machines to become a zombie and watched as it
was drawn into the botnet; by early January they had found the chat
channel that controlled the zombies.
Logging on as "hardcore," Turner pretended to be a bot herder who had
been out of the game for a while. "i want to get back into it," he
wrote. "i ha[v]e a small group of zombies so far which is why i came
back looking." Turner had spent years in chat rooms, and communicated
easily in the emoticon-heavy shorthand common to hackers. He gradually
ingratiated himself with a Russian who called himself eXe and often
logged in from a server that he'd named
"exe.is.wanted.by.the.FBI.gov." Other members were not so welcoming;
when Turner wrote, "i wanna help," one of them, uhdfed, replied, "we
don't need ur HELP," and set his zombies on him. But Lyon and Turner
kept returning, establishing their technical credibility and becoming
a part of the scene.
They continued the ruse for weeks, occasionally with an F.B.I. agent
on the phone helping to direct the conversation. As bait, Turner
described a program he had written that would help eXe to collect
zombies, which he promised to give him as soon as he could rewrite it
in a different programming language. "It was a matter of simply
befriending the guy and making him think that he could trust us," Lyon
said. Piece by piece, eXe revealed himself:
hardcore: its pretty cold here right now, what's russia like? hehe
eXe: i'm good eXe: something hot eXe: =) eXe: Russia is like the
Russian Vodka=) hardcore: hehehe eXe: u give me code?
At one point, during an exchange about the number of computers each
had infected, eXe asked Turner how old he was. Turner replied that he
was twenty-three, and added, "How about you? :)." eXe told him that he
was a twenty-one-year-old Russian student named Ivan. Turner said that
his name was Matt and he lived in Canada. Then, trying to provoke a
confession, he told Ivan that he made money from extortion: "They
always pay because they want their business back and they don't want
to admit they have a weakness . . . stupid Americans."
Turner then asked Ivan about a specific attack: "I figured it would be
you since you have so many bots :P."
"Good idea . . . hehe," Ivan replied.
Before they signed off, Ivan wrote, "Bye friend."
In February, 2004, Lyon and Turner submitted a thirty-six-page report
to the F.B.I. and the N.H.T.C.U., outlining their profile of Ivan and
their correspondence with his crew. At this point, they were operating
as DigiDefense International, which Lyon had founded, hiring Turner
and Lebumfacil as his first employees. At the company's temporary
headquarters, in an office building in Costa Rica, paranoia about
reprisals from Russian mobsters reigned, even though there were armed
guards in the lobby. Meanwhile, Lyon and Turner kept chatting with
A few weeks later, on a Saturday in March, Ivan slipped up: he logged
in to the chat room without disguising his home Internet address. The
same day, Turner happened to be online, and decided to look up eXe's
registration information. To his astonishment, he found what appeared
to be a real name, address, and phone number: Ivan Maksakov, of
Saratov, Russia. Lyon dashed off an e-mail to the authorities with the
subject line "eXe made a HUGE mistake!"
A few months later, the Russian police, accompanied by agents from the
N.H.T.C.U., swept into Maksakov's home, where they found him sitting
at his computer. In television footage of the arrest, Maksakov looks
like a clean-cut kid, with brown hair and a teenager's face. He sits
glumly on his bed in shorts and a T-shirt as the police rummage
through his room and carry out his equipment. The video shows the
officers walking him to the local station and slamming the door shut
on his cell.
In simultaneous raids in St. Petersburg and Stavropol, the police
picked up four other Russians whom the N.H.T.C.U. had traced by
setting up a sting at a bank in Riga, Latvia, where a British company
that was co=F6perating with the authorities had been directed to send
its payment. "We were waiting for people to come pick the money up,"
Mick Deats, of the N.H.T.C.U., told me. "But that didn't happen
immediately. What did happen was that the bad guys we were watching
picked up lots of different payments=97not ours. We were seeing them
pick up Australian dollars, U.S. dollars, and denominations from all
over the world. And we're thinking, Whose money is that?"
The N.H.T.C.U. has never explicitly credited Prolexic's engineers with
Maksakov's arrest. "The identification of the offenders in this came
about through a number of lines of inquiry," Deats said. "Prolexic's
was one of them, but not the only one." In retrospect, Lyon said, "The
N.H.T.C.U. and the F.B.I. were kind of using us. The agents aren't
allowed to do an Nmap, a port scan"=97techniques that he and Dayton
Turner had used to find Ivan's zombies. "It's not illegal; it's just a
little intrusive. And then we had to yank the zombie software off a
computer, and the F.B.I. turned a blind eye to that. They kind of
said, 'We can't tell you to do that=97we can't even suggest it. But if
that data were to come to us we wouldn't complain.' We could do things
outside of their jurisdiction." He added that although his company
still maintained relationships with law-enforcement agencies, they had
grown more cautious about accepting help.
When the authorities picked up Ivan Maksakov, he was one semester away
from graduation at a technical college in Saratov. He spent five
months in prison before being released on bail, and now awaits trial.
According to the authorities, he was a lower-level operative in the
gang, which paid him about two thousand dollars a month for his
services. A source close to the investigation told me that Maksakov,
who faces fifteen years in jail, is co=F6perating with the Russian
One afternoon in Prolexic's offices, I asked Turner if he had felt a
sense of justice when Ivan was arrested. "I suppose," he said
halfheartedly. "It was a difficult situation for me when I saw his
picture, because I kind of felt for the kid. He wasn't necessarily a
bad kid." Perhaps, Turner told me, Ivan had "just said, 'Let's see if
it works. Hey, it works, and people pay me for it.' "
Lyon, too, was one semester from graduation when he dropped out of
college to start his company. He was, in his own way, unable to resist
the challenge, and he, too, had discovered that people would pay him
for what he did. I asked him if he'd ever done anything illegal on the
Net. He thought for a minute, and then told me that once, as a
teen-ager, he had poked around and discovered a vulnerability at
Network Solutions, the company that at the time registered all the
Web's addresses. "I went in and manipulated some domain names," he
said. "A month later, I got a call from somebody with a badge," who
had traced the intrusion back to Lyon's computer.
In the end, Lyon said, the authorities let it go. Those were simpler
times. "I was scared shitless, but I learned my lesson," he said. "If
something like that happened now, I can't imagine what would happen to
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