Posts Tagged: Severa

Feb 18

Alleged Spam Kingpin ‘Severa’ Extradited to US

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, in an undated photo.

Levashov, who allegedly went by the hacker names “Peter Severa,” and “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.

According to a statement released by the U.S. Justice Department, Levashov was arraigned last Friday in a federal court in New Haven, Ct. Levashov’s New York attorney Igor Litvak said he is eager to review the evidence against Mr. Levashov, and that while the indictment against his client is available, the complaint in the case remains sealed.

“We haven’t received any discovery, we have no idea what the government is relying on to bring these allegations,” Litvak said. “Mr. Levashov maintains his innocence and is looking forward to resolving this case, clearing his name, and returning home to his wife and 5-year-old son in Spain.”

In 2010, Microsoft — in tandem with a number of security researchers — launched a combined technical and legal sneak attack on the Waledac botnet, successfully dismantling it. The company would later do the same to the Kelihos botnet, a global spam machine which shared a great deal of computer code with Waledac.

Severa routinely rented out segments of his Waledac botnet to anyone seeking a vehicle for sending spam. For $200, vetted users could hire his botnet to blast one million pieces of spam. Junk email campaigns touting employment or “money mule” scams cost $300 per million, and phishing emails could be blasted out through Severa’s botnet for the bargain price of $500 per million.

Waledac first surfaced in April 2008, but many experts believe the spam-spewing machine was merely an update to the Storm worm, the engine behind another massive spam botnet that first surfaced in 2007. Both Waledac and Storm were major distributors of pharmaceutical and malware spam.

According to Microsoft, in one month alone approximately 651 million spam emails attributable to Waledac/Kelihos were directed to Hotmail accounts, including offers and scams related to online pharmacies, imitation goods, jobs, penny stocks, and more. The Storm worm botnet also sent billions of messages daily and infected an estimated one million computers worldwide.

Both Waledac/Kelihos and Storm were hugely innovative because they each included self-defense mechanisms designed specifically to stymie security researchers who might try to dismantle the crime machines.

Waledac and Storm sent updates and other instructions via a peer-to-peer communications system not unlike popular music and file-sharing services. Thus, even if security researchers or law-enforcement officials manage to seize the botnet’s back-end control servers and clean up huge numbers of infected PCs, the botnets could respawn themselves by relaying software updates from one infected PC to another.


According to a lengthy April 2017 story in about Levashov’s arrest and the takedown of Waledac, Levashov got caught because he violated a basic security no-no: He used the same log-in credentials to both run his criminal enterprise and log into sites like iTunes.

After Levashov’s arrest, numerous media outlets quoted his wife saying he was being rounded up as part of a dragnet targeting Russian hackers thought to be involved in alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Russian news media outlets made much hay over this claim. In contesting his extradition to the United States, Levashov even reportedly told the RIA Russian news agency that he worked for Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s United Russia party, and that he would die within a year of being extradited to the United States.

“If I go to the U.S., I will die in a year,” Levashov is quoted as saying. “They want to get information of a military nature and about the United Russia party. I will be tortured, within a year I will be killed, or I will kill myself.”

But there is so far zero evidence that anyone has accused Levashov of being involved in election meddling. However, the Waledac/Kelihos botnet does have a historic association with election meddling: It was used during the Russian election in 2012 to send political messages to email accounts on computers with Russian Internet addresses. Those emails linked to fake news stories saying that Mikhail D. Prokhorov, a businessman who was running for president against Putin, had come out as gay. Continue reading →

Apr 17

Fake News at Work in Spam Kingpin’s Arrest?

Over the past several days, many Western news media outlets have predictably devoured thinly-sourced reporting from a Russian publication that the arrest last week of a Russian spam kingpin in Spain was related to hacking attacks linked to last year’s U.S. election. While there is scant evidence that the spammer’s arrest had anything to do with the election, the success of that narrative is a sterling example of how the Kremlin’s propaganda machine is adept at manufacturing fake news, undermining public trust in the media, and distracting attention away from the real story.

Russian President Vladimir Putin tours RT facilities. Image: DNI

Russian President Vladimir Putin tours RT facilities. Image: DNI

On Saturday, news broke from (formerly Russia Today) that authorities in Spain had arrested 36-year-old Peter “Severa” Levashov, one of the most-wanted spammers on the planet and the alleged creator of some of the nastiest cybercrime engines in history — including the Storm worm, and the Waledac and Kelihos spam botnets.

But the RT story didn’t lead with Levashov’s alleged misdeeds or his primacy among junk emailers and virus writers. Rather, the publication said it interviewed Levashov’s wife Maria, who claimed that Spanish authorities said her husband was detained because he was suspected of being involved in hacking attacks aimed at influencing the 2016 U.S. election.

The RT piece is fairly typical of one that covers the arrest of Russian hackers in that the story quickly becomes not about the criminal charges but about how the accused is being unfairly treated or maligned by overzealous or misguided Western law enforcement agencies.

The RT story about Levashov, for example, seems engineered to leave readers with the impression that some bumbling cops rudely disturbed the springtime vacation of a nice Russian family, stole their belongings, and left a dazed and confused young mother alone to fend for herself and her child.

This should not be shocking to any journalist or reader who has paid attention to U.S. intelligence agency reports on Russia’s efforts to influence the outcome of last year’s election. A 25-page dossier released in January by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence describes RT as a U.S.-based but Kremlin-financed media outlet that is little more than an engine of anti-Western propaganda controlled by Russian intelligence agencies.

Somehow, this small detail was lost on countless Western media outlets, who seemed all too willing to parrot the narrative constructed by RT regarding Levashov’s arrest. With a brief nod to RT’s “scoop,” these publications back-benched the real story (the long-sought capture of one of the world’s most wanted spammers) and led with an angle supported by the flimsiest of sourcing. Continue reading →

Dec 12

A Closer Look at Two Bigtime Botmasters

Over the past 18 months, I’ve published a series of posts that provide clues about the possible real-life identities of the men responsible for building some of the largest and most disruptive spam botnets on the planet. I’ve since done a bit more digging into the backgrounds of the individuals thought to be responsible for the Rustock and Waledac spam botnets, which has produced some additional fascinating and corroborating details about these two characters.

In March 2011, KrebsOnSecurity featured never-before-published details about the financial accounts and nicknames used by the Rustock botmaster. That story was based on information leaked from SpamIt, a cybercrime business that paid spammers to promote rogue Internet pharmacies (think Viagra spam). In a follow-up post, I wrote that the Rustock botmaster’s personal email account was tied to a domain name, which at one time featured a résumé of a young man named Dmitri A. Sergeev.

Then, on Jan. 26. 2012, I ran a story featuring a trail of evidence suggesting a possible identity of “Severa (a.k.a. “Peter Severa”), another SpamIt affiliate who is widely considered the author of the Waledac botnet (and likely the Storm Worm). In that story, I included several screen shots of Severa chatting on, an extremely secretive Russian forum dedicated to those involved in the spam business. In one of the screen shots, Severa laments the arrest of Alan Ralsky, a convicted American spam kingpin who specialized in stock spam and who — according to the U.S. Justice Department – was partnered with Severa. Anti-spam activists at maintain that Peter Severa’s real name is Peter Levashov (although the evidence I gathered also turned up another name, Viktor Sergeevich Ivashov).

It looks now like Spamhaus’s conclusion on Severa was closer to the truth. More on that in a second. I was able to feature the Spamdot discussions because I’d obtained a backup copy of the forum. But somehow in all of my earlier investigations I overlooked a handful of private messages between Severa and the Rustock botmaster, who used the nickname “Tarelka” on Spamdot. Apparently, the two worked together on the same kind of pump-and-dump stock spam schemes, but also knew each other intimately enough to be on a first-name basis. chat between Tarelka and Severa

The following is from a series of private Spamdot message exchanged between Tarelka and Severa on May 25 and May 26, 2010. In it, Severa refers to Tarelka as “Dimas,” a familiar form of “Dmitri.” Likewise, Tarelka addresses Severa as “Petka,” a common Russian diminutive of “Peter.” They discuss a mysterious mutual friend named John, who apparently used the nickname “Apple.”

Continue reading →

Mar 12

Researchers Clobber Khelios Spam Botnet

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 entertainment industry.

Update, 11:07 a.m. ET: Multiple sources are now reporting that within hours of the Khelios.B takedown, Khelios.C was compiled and launched. It appears to be spreading via Facebook.

Original post: The distributed nature of a P2P botnet allows the botmaster to orchestrate its activities by seeding a few machines in the network with encrypted instructions. Those systems then act as a catalyst, relaying the commands from one infected machine to another in rapid succession.

P2P botnets can be extremely resilient, but they typically posses a central weakness: They are only as strong as the encryption that scrambles the directives that the botmaster sends to infected machines. In other words,  anyone who manages to decipher the computer language needed to talk to the compromised systems can send them new instructions, such as commands to connect to a control server that is beyond the reach of the miscreant(s) who constructed the botnet.

That’s precisely the approach that security researchers used to seize control of Khelios. The caper was pulled off by a motley band of security experts from the Honeynet Project, Kaspersky, SecureWorks, and startup security firm CrowdStrike. The group figured out how to crack the encryption used to control systems infected with Khelios, and then sent a handful of machines new instructions to connect to a Web server that the researchers controlled.

That feat allowed the research team to wrest the botnet from the miscreants who created it, said Adam Meyers, director of intelligence for CrowdStrike. The hijacking of the botnet took only a few minutes, and when it was complete, the team had more than 110,000 PCs reporting to its surrogate control server.

“Once we injected that information in the P2P node, it was essentially propagating everything else for us,” Meyers said. “By taking advantage of the intricacies of the protocol, we were providing the most up-to-date information that all of hosts were spreading.”

The group is now working to notify ISPs where the infected hosts reside, in hopes of cleaning up the bot infestations. Meyers said that, for some unknown reason, the largest single geographic grouping of Khelios-infected systems – 25 percent — were located in Poland. U.S.-based ISPs were home to the second largest contingent of Khelios bots. Meyers said about 80 percent of the Khelios-infected systems they sinkholed were running Windows XP, an increasingly insecure operating system that Microsoft released more than a decade ago. Continue reading →