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Russian mastermind of $500m bank-raiding Citadel coughs to crimes

Chap's code infected 11m PCs, helped crooks make off with half a billion bucks, say Feds

The Russian programmer who built the bank-acount-raiding Citadel Trojan has admitted his crimes.

Mark Vartanyan, who operated under the handle "Kolypto", was arrested in Norway last year, and extradited to America in December. The 29-year-old was charged with one count of computer fraud. On Monday, he pleaded guilty [PDF] to a district court in Atlanta, US. He faces up to 10 years in the clink and a $250,000 fine – that's slashed from a maximum of 25 years due to his guilty plea. He will be sentenced in June.

"We must continue to impose real costs on criminals who believe they are protected by geographic boundaries and can prey on the American people and institutions with impunity," said David LeValley, special agent in charge from the FBI Atlanta Office.

"It further demonstrates the FBI's long-term commitment to identifying and pursuing cyber criminals world-wide, and serves as a strong deterrent to others targeting America's financial institutions and citizens through the use of malicious software."

Citadel surfaced in 2011, infected Windows PCs, and silently slurped victims' online banking credentials so their money could be siphoned into crooks' pockets. It could also snoop on computer screens and hold files to ransom. It was a remarkable success. US prosecutors estimate that, at its height, the malware infected 11 million computers and was responsible for the theft of more than $500m from bank accounts.

Citadel is a variant of the ZeuS banking trojan – the source code of which was leaked – and was sold on invite-only Russian dark web forums to criminals to unleash on the public. The code was later adapted to go after password managers and airport networks. Versions of the malware are still in circulation today. As the US attorney's office in the northern district of Georgia put it:

According to industry estimates, Citadel infected approximately 11 million computers worldwide and is responsible for over $500 million in losses.

Between on or about August 21, 2012 and January 9, 2013, while residing in Ukraine, and again between on or about April 9, 2014 and June 2, 2014, while residing in Norway, Vartanyan allegedly engaged in the development, improvement, maintenance and distribution of Citadel. During these periods, Vartanyan allegedly uploaded numerous electronic files that consisted of Citadel malware, components, updates and patches, as well as customer information, all with the intent of improving Citadel’s illicit functionality.

Citadel was one of the first examples of malware-as–a-service, whereby the creators and developers offered full support and paid-for add-ons, just like the commercial software industry.

While living in Ukraine and Norway, Vartanyan developed and supported Citadel as part of a team. His co-conspirator Dimitry Belorossov has been jailed for his part in the crime operation, and the US Department of Justice says investigations are continuing into snaring others involved with Citadel. ®

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