And the 2016 prize for original cybercriminal thinking goes to… the hackers who created fake people so they could make real money from real online ads.
Known as “Methbot,” alleged Russian hackers have taken a new spin on making money through illegal online means. That is according to White Ops, the online cybersecurity firm that worked out what the online criminals were up to.
In total, White Ops estimate that the hackers have so far managed to get away with their online fraud for several months, netting an impressive $180 million from the online ad industry, or around $3-$5 million a day.
“This is a very advanced cyber operation on a scale no one’s seen before,” said Eddie Schwartz, White Ops chief operating officer.
If true, and there’s no reason to suspect that White Ops is making any of this up, it would be the biggest online fraud ever uncovered of the ‘click and pay’ video ads business.
While Russian state sponsored hackers have dominated online security news in recent months with their alleged US presidential election tampering, White Ops say this scam is highly unlikely to have been orchestrated by the Kremlin.
The fraudsters are using a piece of software dubbed Methbot. “Methbot is a beautiful simulacrum of a real browser. It’s gotten better over time. And by better, I mean, a more perfect life-like copy,” said White Ops CEO Michael Tiffany.
For the uninitiated, a “bot net” is a network of computers infected with malicious code that is controlled by hackers for a purpose that can be unknown to the actual owners of the computers. They are most commonly used by online scammers to ramp up the scale of a cyberattack, but recently have become synonymous with mass Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks against ISPs and companies.
According to White Ops, this particular scam saw the criminals acquiring massive blocks of IP addresses, around half a million of them to be exact, and then configuring them so that they appeared to be innocuously located all over the United States. Then they used the custom designed and built Methbot software, so that computers acted like real people viewing the real ads.
Using somewhat ingenious smarts, some of the fake people were made to seem like they had real Facebook accounts, that also didn’t exist, so more premium ads were shown. The Methbot software also managed to bypass ad fraud blockers by mimicking real people who only surfed the web at certain times of the day.
White Ops said its researchers traced back Methbot’s creators to individual hackers in Russia, but the firm will not release any concrete information until security agencies, such as the FBI, have had a chance to investigate.
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