Feds Zap Zeus Cybercrime Ring

Federal officials arrested at least 39 individuals in the U.S. for their involvement in an international cybercrime ring that used the Zeus botnet to steal millions of dollars from U.S. bank accounts, the FBI said Friday.

The recent wave of arrests is part of a larger crackdown that has been going on since July.

"This advanced cybercrime ring is a disturbing example of organized crime in the 21st century -- high-tech and widespread," Cyrus R. Vance Jr., Manhattan District Attorney, told the Los Angeles Times.

In addition to the 39 individuals arrested, the FBI charged dozens more for bank account fraud and stealing money from accounts that were compromised using the Zeus botnet, notorious for distributing malware specifically targeting banking and other financial data -- infecting about 300 U.S. victims.

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Officials in the Ukraine arrested five more individuals on Thursday and conducted searches under eight warrants, according to Reuters.

NEXT: Millions Of Spam Messages

Altogether, the hackers behind scheme were responsible for lifting about $70 million from U.S. bank accounts, according to federal officials.

Members of the cyber-ring, the majority of which were from Eastern Europe, used the Zeus botnet to send millions of spam messages containing malicious embedded links or attachments to computers in U.S. businesses. Malware was downloaded onto users' computers once they opened the Web pages or files, designed to record keystrokes, capture bank account usernames and passwords, and then steal sensitive financial information.

Once the hackers had access, they transferred thousands of dollars from the victims' bank accounts to other participants in the ring.

Ringleaders set up bank accounts to launder the stolen money back to Eastern Europe, relying on what are known as "money mules." The mules made withdrawals on their accounts once they received the illegal transfers from victims, which were then sent back to crime ring leaders. Many of the "mules" were young men and women on illegal passports from Eastern European countries that included Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

The attacks were successful due to stealthy banking malware, designed to sit silently on users' computers and drain their bank accounts, evading standard antivirus and antimalware programs. Security experts said that most of the time victims were not aware that they had been infected until their accounts were depleted.

NEXT: Security Experts Weigh In

Paul Henry, security and forensic analyst at Lumension, said users should make sure that their patches are up-to-date to reduce the risk of becoming infected from Zeus malware.

The Zeus banking botnet, also known as Zbot, has gained traction over the past year due to the widespread availability of crimeware kits, which enable amateur hackers to install software that automates a malware attack and distributes it to thousands or millions of users.

"You have to remember this is sold as a kit. The Trojan is around $3,000. The back connect kit that allows the bad guy to connect to the victim's bank through the victim's computer is $1,500, and a realtime notifier that can defeat a two factor token is available for $500," Henry told CRN. "The only thing keeping a potential cybercriminal from using it is their having the will to do it."

Meanwhile, Henry maintained that it's unlikely that the high-profile crackdown and numerous arrests will serve as a deterrent to future hackers or reduce the amount of cybercrime.

"Unfortunately, it will have little if any impact at all," he said. "For every one that falls, many are lined up behind them."