Guilty Plea Entered in ‘Scareware’ Hack of News Site

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) – A Latvian man pleaded guilty Tuesday to participating in a “scareware” hacking scheme that targeted visitors to the website of Minnesota’s largest newspaper and tried to trick them into buying a fake antivirus program.

Peteris Sahurovs aka “Piotrek” and “Sagade,” 28, pleaded guilty in Minnesota federal court to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Beginning in February 2010 and lasting for about seven months, Sahurovs admitted that he registered domain names, provided “bullet-proof” hosting services and gave technical support for “scareware” – a form of malware – in a scheme targeting visitors of the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s website.

The Star Tribune hosted an online advertisement on its site for Best Western hotels, but the advertisement began causing visitors’ computers to be infected with malware, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Some of the issues experienced by the website visitors were slow system performance, pop-ups and entire system failure.

The malware also created a bogus Windows security alert telling users that their computer had been infected with a virus and that an “Antivirus Soft” computer program had to be purchased for $49.95 to fix the security issue.

Those who chose to purchase the program received a file to download that “unfroze” their computers, though Sahurovs admitted that it was phony.

Users who did not pay for the program were slammed with pop-ups, causing their computer to become inoperable.

According to a Justice Department press release, Sahurovs stated that he made between $150,000 and $250,000 from the scheme.

He was arrested on a federal indictment in Latvia in June 2011, but was released by a Latvian court and later fled, according to prosecutors.

He was found five years later in Poland, arrested and extradited to the United States last June.

Sahurovs was at one time the FBI’s fifth most-wanted cybercriminal and a reward of up to $50,000 had been offered for information leading to his arrest and conviction.

He pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Ann D. Montgomery. His sentencing is set for June 6.

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