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Russian Man Convicted of $7 Million Digital Advertising Scam

 

A Russian person was found guilty in the United States of using a bot farm and hiring servers to create fraudulent internet traffic on media sites, causing businesses to pay inflated advertising rates. 

Prosecutors said Aleksandr Zhukov, 41, was the brains of the Methbot operation, in which 1,900 servers were used to generate millions of bogus online ad views on websites such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. According to the US, Zhukov gained $7 million from the scheme and channeled the money into offshore accounts around the world, citing a text in which he referred to himself as the "King of Fraud." 

The group allegedly called their plan "Metan," which is the Russian term for methane, while the FBI and prosecutors referred to it as Methbot, and later as Media Methane, which was the name of Zhukov's company with operations in Russia and Bulgaria. 

Zhukov and his colleagues negotiated deals with advertising networks to display their ads on websites, then received a commission for each ad that was viewed. According to prosecution filings, Zhukov and his collaborators instead established bogus sites and manipulated data centres to produce false users to make it appear like actual people were viewing the ads from September 2014 to December 2016.

"Zhukov represented to others that he ran a legitimate ad network that delivered advertisements to real human internet users accessing real internet web pages," according to a superseding indictment filed on February 12, 2020. 

"In fact, Zhukov faked both the users and the webpages: he and his co-conspirators programmed computers that they had rented from commercial data centers in the United States and elsewhere to load advertisements on fabricated webpages, via an automated program, in order to fraudulently obtain digital advertising revenue," it says. 

Victims of the scheme "included The New York Times, The New York Post, Comcast, Nestle Purina, the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children, and Time Warner Cable," the Department of Justice said in a news release. 

On a temporary US arrest order, Zhukov was arrested in Bulgaria in November 2018. In January 2019, he was extradited to the United States and pleaded not guilty to the accusations against him.

Tag Barnakle Targets Various Web Servers with Malicious Ads

 

In a persistent campaign that features malicious ads on tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, computers, the criminals have infiltrated more than 120 ad servers and introduced malicious code to legitimate announcements that redirect visitors to sites that promote malware and fraud. This has been going on since the past year, thus attracting benign devices in all external appearances. The malicious activity group behind this campaign is identified by the name Tag Barnakle.

Malvertising is the phenomenon of advertising while the viewers are visiting trustworthy websites. The advertising includes JavaScript that exploits software faults surreptitiously and attempts to make tourists download an unsafe application, pay computer support charges fraudulently or perform other dangerous acts. In general, Internet fraudsters pose as shoppers and pay ad distribution networks for malicious advertising to be shown on individual pages. 

Resources are needed to infiltrate the ad ecosystem as a legitimate buyer. Firstly, scammers need to spend time studying the functioning of the industry and then create a reputable entity. The strategy also calls for the payment of money for space to display malicious advertising. Though this is not the method used by a malvertising group called Tag Barnakle. 

“Tag Barnakle, on the other hand, can bypass this initial hurdle completely by going straight for the jugular—mass compromise of ad serving infrastructure,” Confiant researcher Eliya Stein wrote in a blog. “Likely, they’re also able to boast an ROI [return on investment] that would eclipse their rivals as they don’t need to spend a dime to run ad campaigns.” 

Over the previous year, Tag Barnakle infected  more than 120 servers running Revive, an open-source application for companies who want to run their ad server instead of a third-party provider. Once an advertising server has been hacked, Tag Barnakle loads it with a malicious payload. The group does not use customer fingerprint identification to recognize the most enticing targets, to assure the malicious ads are received only in limited numbers. The servers which supply the targets with a secondary payload also use coating techniques to ensure they also fly below the radar.

As Confiant posted on Tag Barnakle last year, the community found that about 60 Revive servers had been compromised. This feature allowed the group to distribute advertising on over 360 web assets. The commercials have triggered fake Adobe Flash updates that install malware on desktop computers while it is running. Tag Barnakle targets both iPhone and Android customers this time. Web pages receiving an ad from an affected server provide extremely confused JavaScript to decide if a visitor uses an iPhone or Android smartphone. 

The advertisements are mainly aimed at highlighting fake protection, safety, or VPN apps with secret subscription fees or “siphon off traffic for nefarious ends.” The advertising may also be extended to thousands of individual websites with ad servers frequently combined with several publicity exchanges. Confident does not know how many terminal users are comprised but the company considers the number to be huge.