A federal judge in Connecticut today handed down a sentence of time served to spam kingpin Peter “Severa” Levashov, a prolific purveyor of malicious and junk email, and the creator of malware strains that infected millions of Microsoft computers globally. Levashov has been in federal custody since his extradition to the United States and guilty plea in 2018, and was facing up to 12 more years in prison. Instead, he will go free under three years of supervised release and a possible fine.
Peter Yuryevich Levashov, a 37-year-old Russian computer programmer thought to be one of the world’s most notorious spam kingpins, has been extradited to the United States to face federal hacking and spamming charges.
Levashov, who allegedly went by the hacker name “Peter Severa,” or “Peter of the North,” hails from St. Petersburg in northern Russia, but he was arrested last year while in Barcelona, Spain with his family.
Authorities have long suspected he is the cybercriminal behind the once powerful spam botnet known as Waledac (a.k.a. “Kelihos”), a now-defunct malware strain responsible for sending more than 1.5 billion spam, phishing and malware attacks each day.
Authorities in Spain have arrested a Russian computer programmer thought to be one of the world’s most notorious spam kingpins.
Spanish police arrested Pyotr Levashov under an international warrant executed in the city of Barcelona, according to Reuters. Russian state-run television station RT (formerly Russia Today) reported that Levashov was arrested while vacationing in Spain with his family.
According to numerous stories here at KrebsOnSecurity, Levashov was better known as “Severa,” the hacker moniker used by a pivotal figure in many popular Russian-language cybercrime forums. Severa was the moderator for the spam subsection of multiple online communities, and in this role served as the virtual linchpin connecting virus writers with huge spam networks that Severa allegedly created and sold himself.
Cynical security experts often dismiss anti-spam activists as grumpy idealists with a singular, Sisyphean obsession. The cynics question if it’s really worth all that time and effort to complain to ISPs and hosting providers about customers that are sending junk email? Well, according to at least one underground service designed for spammers seeking to avoid anti-spam activists, the answer is a resounding “yes!”
Experts from across the security industry collaborated this week to quarantine more than 110,000 Microsoft Windows PCs that were infected with the Khelios worm, a contagion that forces infected PCs to blast out junk email advertising rogue Internet pharmacies.
Most botnets are relatively fragile: If security experts or law enforcement agencies seize the Internet servers used to control the zombie network, the crime machine eventually implodes. But Khelios (a.k.a. “Kelihos”) was built to withstand such attacks, employing a peer-to-peer structure not unlike that used by popular music and file-sharing sites to avoid takedown by the music and entertainment industry.
Microsoft on Monday named a Russian man as allegedly the guy responsible for running the Kelihos botnet, a spam engine that infected an estimated 40,000 PCs. But closely held data seized from the world’s largest spam affiliate program suggests that the driving force behind Kelihos is a different individual who is still coordinating spam campaigns for hire.
Kelihos shares a great deal of code with the infamous Waledac botnet, a far more pervasive threat that infected hundreds of thousands of computers and pumped out tens of billions of junk emails promoting shady online pharmacies. Despite the broad base of shared code between the two malware families, Microsoft classifies them as fundamentally different threats. The company used clever legal techniques to seize control over and shutter both botnets, sucker punching Waledac in early 2010 and taking out Kelihos last fall.
On Monday, Microsoft filed papers with a Virginia court stating that Kelihos was run by Andrey N. Sabelnikov, a St. Petersburg man who once worked at Russian antivirus and security firm Agnitum. But according to the researcher who shared that intelligence with Microsoft — and confidentially with Krebs On Security weeks prior to Microsoft’s announcement — Sabelnikov is likely only a developer of Kelihos. Rather, the researcher argues, the true coordinator of both Kelihos and Waledac is another Russian man who is well known to anti-spam activists.
An explosion of online fraud tools and services online makes it easier than ever for novices to get started in computer crime. At the same time, a growing body of evidence suggests that much of the world’s cybercrime activity may be the work of a core group of miscreants who’ve been at it for many years.
I recently highlighted the financial links among the organizations responsible for promoting fake antivirus products and spam-advertised pharmacies; all were relying on a few banks in Azerbaijan to process credit card payments.