Posts Tagged: Vladimir Tsastsin

Jul 15

Cybercrime Kingpin Pleads Guilty

An Estonian man who ran an organized cybercrime ring that infected more than four million PCs in over 100 countries with moneymaking malware has pleaded guilty in New York to wire fraud and computer intrusion charges.

Vladimir Tsastsin, 35, ran an online Web hosting and advertising empire in Estonia called Rove Digital. From 2007 to 2011, Tsastin and six other men cooked up and executed a scheme to deploy malware that altered the domain name system (DNS) settings on infected computers (there were versions of the malware for both Mac and Windows systems).

Tsastsin. left, along with other Rove Digital men, at a hearing in Tallinn. Image:

Tsastsin. right, along with other Rove Digital men, at a 2013 hearing in Tallinn. Image:

Known as DNSChanger, the malware replaced legitimate ads in victim Web browsers with ads that rewarded Rove Digital, and hijacked referral commissions from other advertisers when victims clicked on ads. The malware also prevented infected systems from downloading software updates and visiting many security Web sites.

Following the takedown of the crime gang, the U.S. government assumed control over the DNS servers that were used by the malware, and spearheaded a global effort to clean up infected systems. U.S. authorities allege that the men made more than $14 million through click hijacking and advertisement replacement fraud.

Tsastsin and his accomplices were arrested in 2011 by Estonian authorities for their role in the scheme, but ultimately the men were acquitted. In June 2014, however, the Estonian Supreme Court revoked that decision, finding them guilty of money laundering. Tsastsin in particular was also found guilty of leading a criminal gang. All but one of the seven were later extradited to the United States, and have already pleaded guilty and/or been imprisoned.

I first encountered Tsastsin in 2008, after research and collaboration with numerous security firms and researchers led to a Washington Post series detailing how Rove Digital and its hosting business — a company called EstDomains — were hosting huge numbers of Web sites that foisted malicious software. His response at the time to assertions that he was somehow tied to Russian organized cybercrime: “Rubbish!”  Continue reading →

Nov 13

Spam-Friendly Registrar ‘Dynamic Dolphin’ Shuttered

The organization that oversees the Internet domain name registration industry last week revoked the charter of Dynamic Dolphin, a registrar that has long been closely associated with spam and cybercrime.

Scott Richter. Image:

Scott Richter. Image:

The move came almost five years after this reporter asked the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to investigate whether the man at the helm of this registrar was none other than Scottie Richter, an avowed spammer who has settled multi-million-dollar spam lawsuits with Facebook, Microsoft and MySpace over the past decade.

According to the contracts that ICANN requires all registrars to sign, registrars may not have anyone as an officer of the company who has been convicted of a criminal offense involving financial activities. While Richter’s spam offenses all involve civil matters, this reporter discovered several years ago that Richter had actually pleaded guilty in 2003 to a felony grand larceny charge.

Richter’s felony rap was detailed in a January 2004 story in the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News; a cached copy of that story is here. It explains that Denver police were investigating a suspected fencing operation involving the purchase and sale of stolen goods by Richter and his associates. Richter, then 32, was busted for conspiring to deal in stolen goods, including a Bobcat, a generator, laptop computers, cigarettes and tools. He later pleaded guilty to one count of grand larceny, and was ordered to pay nearly $38,000 in restitution to cover costs linked to the case.

After reading this story, I registered with the Colorado state courts Website and purchased a copy of the court record detailing Richter’s conviction — available at this link (PDF) — and shared it with ICANN. I also filed an official request with ICANN (PDF) to determine whether Richter was in fact listed as a principal in Dynamic Dolphin. ICANN responded in 2008 that it wasn’t clear whether he was in fact listed as an officer of the company.

But in a ruling issued last week, ICANN said that analysis changed after it had an opportunity to review information regarding Dynamic Dolphin’s voting shares.

“Prior to this review, ICANN had no knowledge that Scott Richter was the 100% beneficial owner of Dynamic Dolphin,” ICANN wrote. “In light of this review, ICANN initiates a review of the application for accreditation from 2011. Based on Section II. B. of the Statement of Registrar Accreditation Policy, Dynamic Dolphin did not disclose in its application for accreditation that Scott Richter was the 100% beneficial owner of Dynamic Dolphin or that Scott Richter was convicted in 2003 for a felony relating to financial activities.”

ICANN has ordered that Dynamic Dolphin be stripped of its accreditation as a registrar, and that all domains registered with Dynamic Dolphin be transferred to another registrar within 28 days. Neither Richter nor a representative for Dynamic Dolphin could be immediately reached for comment.

ICANN’s action is long overdue. Writing for The Washington Post in May 2008, this author called attention to statistics gathered by anti-spam outfit Knujon (“NOJUNK” spelled backwards), which found that more than three quarters of all Web sites advertised through spam at the time were clustered at just 10 domain name registrars. Near the top of that list was Dynamic Dolphin, a registrar owned by an entity called CPA Empire, which in turn is owned by Media Breakaway LLC — Richter’s company. Another story published around that same time by The Washington Post showed that Media Breakaway was behind the wholesale hijacking of some 65,586 Internet addresses from a San Francisco, Calif. organization that was among the early pioneers of the Internet.

Continue reading →

Feb 12

Feds Request DNSChanger Deadline Extension

Extradition of Accused Masterminds Moves Forward

Millions of computers infected with the stealthy and tenacious DNSChanger Trojan may be spared a planned disconnection from the Internet early next month if a New York court approves a new request by the U.S. government. Meanwhile, six men accused of managing and profiting from the huge collection of hacked PCs are expected to soon be extradited from their native Estonia to face charges in the United States.

DNSChanger modifies settings on a host PC that tell the computer how to find Web sites on the Internet, hijacking victims’ search results and preventing them from visiting security sites that might help detect and scrub the infections. The Internet servers that were used to control infected PCs were located in the United States, and in coordination with the arrest of the Estonian men in November, a New York district court ordered a private U.S. company to assume control over those servers. The government argued that the arrangement would give ISPs and companies time to identify and scrub infected PCs, systems that would otherwise be disconnected from the Internet if the control servers were shut down. The court agreed, and ordered that the surrogate control servers remain in operation until March 8.

But earlier this month, security firm Internet Identity revealed that the cleanup process was taking a lot longer than expected: The company said more than 3 million systems worldwide — 500,000 in the United States — remain infected with the Trojan, and that at least one instance of the Trojan was still running on computers at 50 percent of Fortune 500 firms and half of all U.S. government agencies. That means that if the current deadline holds, millions of PCs are likely to be cut off from the Web on March 8.

In a Feb. 17 filing with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, officials with the U.S. Justice Department, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and NASA asked the court to extend the March 8 deadline by more than four months to give ISPs, private companies and the government more time to clean up the mess. The government requested that the surrogate servers be allowed to stay in operation until July 9, 2012. The court has yet to rule on the request, a copy of which is available here (PDF).

Not everyone thinks extending the deadline is the best way to resolve the situation. In fact, security-minded folks seem dead-set against the idea. KrebOnSecurity conducted an unscientific poll earlier this month, asking readers whether they thought the government should give affected users more time to clean up infections from the malware, which can be unusually difficult to remove. Nearly 1,400 readers responded that forcing people to meet the current deadline was the best approach. The overwhelming opinion (~9:1) was against extending the March 8 deadline.

KrebsOnSecurity readers voted almost 9-1 against the idea of extending the Mar. 8 deadline.

In related news, the six Estonian men arrested and accused of building and profiting from the DNSChanger botnet are expected to be extradited to face computer intrusion and conspiracy charges in the United States.  Continue reading →

Nov 11

Rove Digital Was Core ChronoPay Shareholder

Rove Digital, the company run by six men who were arrested in Estonia this week for allegedly infecting four million PCs worldwide with malware, was an early investor in ChronoPay, a major Russian payment processing firm whose principal founder Pavel Vrublevsky also is now in prison and awaiting trial on cyber crime charges, KrebsOnSecurity has learned.

Estonian authorities on Tuesday arrested Rove Digital founder Vladimir Tsastsin, 31, along with five other Estonian nationals indicted on charges of running a sophisticated click fraud scheme. Yesterday’s blog post details Tsastsin’s criminal history, and his stewardship over Rove and a sister firm, EstDomains.. Today’s post will reveal how Tsastsin and his company were closely allied with and early investors in ChronoPay, and how that relationship unraveled over the years.

In my Pharma War series, I’ve published incorporation documents showing that Igor Gusev, a man currently wanted in Russia on criminal charges of running an illegal business in the notorious pharmacy spam affiliate programs GlavMed and SpamIt, was a co-founder of ChronoPay back in 2003. That series also details how Gusev sold his shares in ChronoPay, and that Vrublevsky later started a competing rogue pharmacy/spam operation called Rx-Promotion.

A spreadsheet showing front companies tied to ChronoPay.

It turns out that ChronoPay also had two other major and early investors: Rove Digital and a mysterious entity called Crossfront Limited. This information was included in the massive trove of internal ChronoPay emails and documents that was briefly published online last year and shared with select journalists and law enforcement agencies. Among those documents is a spreadsheet (XLS) listing all of the various shadowy companies allegedly owned and managed by ChronoPay founder Pavel Vrublevsky and associates. It lists ChronoPay B.V., the legal entity in The Netherlands that formed the initial basis of the company, as jointly owned by Gusev’s firm DPNet B.V., Red & Partners (Vrublevsky’s adult Webmaster provider) and Rove Digital OU.

When I met with Vrublevsky at his offices in Moscow in February of this year, he confirmed that Tsastsin was an old friend and that Rove Digital had been a key shareholder in the company. Further evidence of the connection between ChronoPay and Rove Digital is provided in a series of internal ChronoPay emails from May 2010.

At that time, ChronoPay was under investigation by Dutch banking regulators who suspected that the company’s intricate network of front companies and financial channels were acting in violation of the country’s anti-money laundering laws. In a tersely-worded email exchange, the Dutch bank  demanded a slew of additional accounting and administrative records, including “all documents that show the structure of ChronoPay BV, such as statutes, incorporation documents, names and addresses of director(s) and shareholders.”

Continue reading →

Nov 11

‘Biggest Cybercriminal Takedown in History’

The proprietors of shadowy online businesses that have become synonymous with cybercrime in recent years were arrested in their native Estonia on Tuesday and charged with running a sophisticated click fraud scheme that infected with malware more than four million computers in over 100 countries — including an estimated 500,000 PCs in the United States. The law enforcement action, dubbed “Operation Ghost Click,” was the result  of a multi-year investigation, and is being called the “biggest cybercriminal takedown in history.”

Vladimir Tsastsin, in undated photo.

Estonian authorities arrested six men, including Vladimir Tsastsin, 31, the owner of several Internet companies that have been closely associated with the malware community for many years. Tsastsin previously headed EstDomains Inc. a domain name registrar that handled the registrations for tens of thousands of domains associated with the far-flung Russian Business Network.

Reporting for The Washington Post in September 2008, I detailed how Tsastsin’s prior convictions in Estonia for credit card fraud, money laundering and forgery violated the registrar agreement set forth by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which bars convicted felons from serving as officers of a registrar. ICANN later agreed, and revoked EstDomains’ ability to act as a domain registrar, citing Tsastsin’s criminal history.

Also arrested were Timur Gerassimenko, 31; Dmitri Jegorov, 33; Valeri Aleksejev, 31; Konstantin Poltev, 28 (quoted in the above-linked stories as the spokesperson for EstDomains); and Anton Ivanvov, 26. All six men were arrested and taken into custody this week by the Estonian Police and Border Guard. A seventh defendant, a 31-year-old Russian national named Andrey Taame, is still at large.

Source: FBI

Indictments returned against the defendants in the U.S. District Court for the South District of New York detail how the defendants allegedly used a strain of malware generically known as DNS Changer to hijack victim computers for the purposes of redirecting Web browsers to ads that generated pay-per-click revenue for the defendants and their clients. U.S. authorities allege that the men made more than $14 million through click hijacking and advertisement replacement fraud.

DNS Changer most often comes disguised as a video “codec” supposedly needed to view adult movies. It infects systems at the boot sector level, hooking into the host computer at a very low level and making it often very challenging to remove. This malware family didn’t just infect Microsoft Windows systems: Several versions of DNS changer would just as happily infect Mac systems as well. Other variants of the malware even hijacked DNS settings on wireless home routers. The FBI has posted several useful links to help users learn whether their systems are infected with DNS Changer.

Feike Hacquebord, senior threat researcher for security vendor Trend Micro, called the arrest the “biggest cybercriminal takedown in history.” In a blog post published today, Hacquebord and Trend detail the multi-year takedown, which involved a number of front companies, but principally an entity that Tsastsin founded named Rove Digital:

Continue reading →