Meet A-Z: The computer hacker behind a cybercrime wave

A Russian tech superstar is the mastermind behind ID theft software.

ByABC News
February 18, 2009, 9:16 PM

— -- He goes by the nickname A-Z and is one of Russia's bright young tech stars. He's a crack programmer, successful entrepreneur and creator of sophisticated software tools that help his customers make millions.

Trouble is, A-Z's masterstroke is a computer program called ZeuS that helps cybergangs steal people's identity data and pull off Web scams on a vast scale. Last fall, German criminals used ZeuS to pull off an Ocean's Eleven-like caper, hijacking $6 million from banks in the United States, United Kingdom, Spain and Italy, says SecureWorks, an Atlanta-based company that monitors Internet crime and supplies security systems for 2,100 companies and government agencies.

A few years ago, skilled hackers such as A-Z concentrated most of their efforts on setting loose globe-spanning Internet viruses, mainly for bragging rights. But cybercrime is now a fast-expanding, global industry, security researchers and law enforcement officials say. Because it most often goes undetected and unreported, cybercrime is difficult to measure. A benchmark widely cited by the tech-security community is that its value tops $100 billion a year, outpacing global drug trafficking.

"All you need is a computer, Internet access and programming skills, and now you have a viable career path in front of you," says Nick Newman, a computer crime specialist at the National White Collar Crime Center, a federally funded non-profit that trains local law enforcement. "It's easy money, and because the Internet is anonymous you don't think you'll ever get caught."

A-Z is an archetypical new-generation hacker. No one outside of his close associates knows his true identity, virus hunters say. But security researchers and government authorities have exhaustively triangulated his presence in the cyber-underworld for nearly two years. Based on A-Z's marketing activities in Russian chat rooms and forums, and distinctive coding signatures in ZeuS, investigators peg him to be a male in his early 20s, living in Moscow, working full time as an independent software developer for hire.

"He's well-spoken, business-savvy and discreet," says Don Jackson, a senior researcher at SecureWorks who has investigated A-Z's movements online. Jackson belongs to a fraternity of about 200 other professional virus hunters who shadow hackers and scrutinize Internet traffic to flush out data-stealing programs and curtail Web scams. A-Z is "very careful to maintain a professional image, and he always leaves his clients wanting more."

Crafting a sneaky ZeuS

Hackers such as A-Z craft the code that enables crime groups to continually inundate your e-mail inbox with spam scams and taint millions of popular Web pages with snares to take control of your PC.

"Cybercrime has evolved into big business and created a market for highly specialized individuals," says Steve Santorelli, director of investigations at research firm Team Cymru, who has studied how ZeuS helps cyber-intruders control infected computers. A-Z identified an underserved market niche and hustled to fill it, Jackson says. He recognized latent demand for software that could more efficiently infect home and workplace PCs and turn them into bots obedient machines that could be controlled remotely without the owners' knowledge or consent. Cybergangs now routinely assemble thousands of infected PCs in networks, called botnets, which they then use to spread spam, infect other computers, steal data and hijack online accounts.