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

USA TODAY
By Byron Acohido, USA TODAY

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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 fraternit

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