UAB software helps FBI crack international cybercrime case

UAB Spam Data Mine links Internet scam to cybercriminals accused of hacking more than 400 million computers.

University of Alabama at Birmingham researchers helped the Federal Bureau of Investigation and NASA Office of Inspector General identify seven foreign nationals arrested for a massive, sophisticated Internet fraud that infected more than 400 million computers in 100-plus countries and scammed $14 million.

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Anthony Skjellum, Ph.D., Chair, UAB Computer and Information Sciences;
Gary Warner, Director of UAB Research in Computer Forensics;
John Sloan, Chair, UAB Justice Sciences

The defendants in the FBI Operation Ghost Click were tracked down with assistance from the UAB Spam Data Mine, which archives and analyzes spam campaigns gathering more than 1 million emails per day. The database, which holds about 550 million spam email messages, is the reason law enforcement asked UAB for assistance.

"The information we received from UAB’s software was invaluable to our efforts in the apprehension of these international suspects,” said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Thomas Grasso Jr.

At least 500,000 computers infected in the United States belonged to government agencies — including NASA, educational institutions, non-profit organizations, businesses and individuals. (UAB’s computers were not infected.) The malware secretly enabled the defendants to hijack Internet searches and reroute computers to certain websites and advertisements and prevented infected computers from installing anti-virus software.

“The UAB Spam Data Mine allowed us to tell the FBI when new email-based threats contained versions of particular computer viruses that were related to the malware family associated with this case,” says Gary Warner, director of Research in Computer Forensics in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences. “Our team can help law enforcement quickly track down and successfully prosecute cybercriminals anywhere in the world because we can identify related spam almost instantaneously.”

Warner, five times selected as a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional and author of the Cyber Crime & Doing Time blog, is a member of UAB’s Center for Information Assurance and Joint Forensics Research. The center, known for interdisciplinary research and development, offers law-enforcement solutions in many areas, including spam data-mining, phishing, computer security, computer intrusion and identity theft.

“We created the center to respond to rapidly emerging and enduring threats to global, domestic and regional commerce and safety,” says its founding director Anthony Skjellum, Ph.D., chair of UAB Computer and Information Sciences. “Our team has taken the lead in helping law enforcement eradicate cybercrime by making it near impossible for online criminals to hide.”

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