This Malware Hijacked 500,000 Computers

It looks like the United States' government has more than just Chinese hackers to deal with: Officials arrested nearly 100 people in an international bust linked to Blackshades, a malicious software program that allowed attackers to remotely control computers and webcams. The malware infected more than half a million computers in over 100 countries, leaving victims vulnerable to hackers who stole sexually explicit photographs and sent threats to those who tried to block the system.

“Blackshades made taking over a computer so easy, even a caveman could do it,” said Leo Taddeo, chief of the cybercrimes unit of the FBI office in New York, in a statement.

Distributors sold the malware for little as $40 and gave criminals the ability to steal passwords and banking information, hack into social media accounts, access photos and other computer files, record keystrokes, and hold a computer for ransom from anywhere in the world. In a press conference Monday, U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, called it "one of the greatest threats to our country," according to reports from the Los Angeles Times.

As if there weren't enough sleazebags on the Internet, the software permitted programmers to spy on people through their own webcams — even Miss Teen USA wasn't immune to the perils. In 2013, 19-year-old Jared James Abrahams used Blackshades to capture naked photos of beauty queen Cassidy Wolf in a "sextortion" case that prompted an FBI investigation and led to his eventual arrest. Another related investigation by Dutch police resulted in the arrest of an 18-year-old who used the program to take webcam photos of women and girls on about 2,000 computers.

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Who was behind this international creepfest? A 24-year-old Swedish man, Alex Yucel, and Michael Hogue, a 23-year-old student at the University of Arizona. More than 300 searches were conducted in the worldwide cyber takedown, the FBI says, involving law enforcement agencies in Europe, Asia, Australia and North America. Thousands of people bought the program with the appeal of the software's customizable features, allowing hackers to cater the program to their particular requirements.

Could your computer be a victim of Blackshades? The FBI advises a series of checks on your device, including verifying whether your web camera unexpectedly turns on, monitors turn off during use, or unauthorized logins or transfers to bank accounts occur, among other factors. Following the rise in crimes targeting online banking institutions and major retail companies, the Blackshades operation serves as a reminder that nothing is safe in today's digital age.