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Spanish cops snatch suspected top spammer as US moves against Kelihos botnet

Trump hacking claims look like red herring

Police in Barcelona have arrested a man suspected of being one of the web's top spammers and the possible operator of a major botnet.

Pyotr Levashov, 36, was arrested on Friday by Spanish police in a joint operation with the FBI. The local authorities told the AP that the arrest was part of an investigation into the Kelihos botnet, which Levashov has been accused of running.

According to spammer monitoring site Spamhaus, Levashov is seventh on their list of the world's top ten purveyors of unwanted emails and is a former associate of the self-styled Spam King Alan Ralsky. He is also the prime suspect behind the Kelihos – and possibly the Waledac – botnets.

At its height, Kelihos was hosted on over 42,000 infected machines and was capable of pumping out almost 4 billion spam messages per day. In September 2011, Microsoft claimed to have taken down the botnet, but it resurfaced less than a year later.

Coincidentally, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) unsealed court documents on Monday that explicitly name Levashov as the operator of the Kelihos botnet since 2010. The court documents [PDF] claim Levashov offered to send out a million spam messages for legal products for $200, with the price rising to $300 per million for adverts looking for money mules or $500 per million to carry out phishing attacks.

DoJ operatives have now begun shutting down command and control servers for the botnet and malicious domains associated with Kelihos, and are establishing substitute servers that receive the automated requests for instructions from the underground computer network.

"The ability of botnets like Kelihos to be weaponized quickly for vast and varied types of harms is a dangerous and deep threat to all Americans, driving at the core of how we communicate, network, earn a living, and live our everyday lives," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Blanco.

"Our success in disrupting the Kelihos botnet was the result of strong cooperation between private industry experts and law enforcement, and the use of innovative legal and technical tactics. The Department of Justice is committed to combatting cybercrime, no matter the size or sophistication of the scheme, and to punishing those who are engaged in such crimes."

The Russian embassy confirmed that their citizen had been snaffled. "As it is routine in these cases, we offer consular support to our citizen," said embassy spokesman Vasily Nioradze.

Shortly after Levashov's arrest, his wife told the Russian propaganda TV channel RT that Spanish police locked her and a friend in a room while they questioned the arrestee for two hours. She claimed that when she spoke to Levashov by phone after his arrest, he said the arrest was down to his creation of a computer virus that was "linked to Trump's election win."

However, shortly afterwards RT removed the story from their website. It's not clear if this was down to the story being unsubstantiated or if it was just no longer a line they wanted to push. ®

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