Who Is the ‘Festi’ Botmaster?

Pavel Vrublevsky, the co-founder of Russian payment processor ChronoPay, is set to appear before a judge this week in a criminal case in which he is accused of hiring a botmaster to attack a competitor. Prosecutors believe that the man Vrublevsky hired in that attack was the curator of the Festi botnet, a spam-spewing machine that also has been implicated in a number of high-profile denial-of-service assaults.

Igor Artimovich

Vrublevsky spent six months in prison last year for his alleged role in an attack against Assist, the company that was processing payments for Aeroflot, Russia’s largest airline. Aeroflot had opened its contract for processing payments to competitive bidding, and ChronoPay was competing against Assist and several other processors.

Investigators with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) last summer arrested a St. Petersburg man named Igor Artimovich in connection with the attacks. Artimovich — known in hacker circles by the handle “Engel” — confessed to having used his botnet to attack Assist after receiving instructions and payment from Vrublevsky.

As I wrote in last year’s piece, the allegations against Artimovich and Vrublevsky were supported by evidence collected by Russian computer forensics firm Group-IB, which assisted the FSB with the investigation. Group-IB presented detailed information on the malware and control servers used to control more than 10,000 infected PCs, and shared with investigators screen shots of the botnet control panel (pictured below) allegedly used to coordinate the DDoS attack against Assist.

Group-IB’s evidence suggested Artimovich had used a botnet he called Topol-Mailer to launch the attacks, but Topol-Mailer is more commonly known as Festi, one of the world’s largest and most active spam botnets. As detailed by researchers at NOD32 Antivirus makers ESET, Festi was built not just for spam, but to serve as a very powerful tool for launching distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, digital sieges which use hacked machines to flood targets with so much meaningless traffic that they can no longer accommodate legitimate visitors.

“Topol Mailer” botnet interface allegedly used by Artimovich.

Group-IB said Artimovich’s botnet was repeatedly used to attack several rogue pharmacy programs that were competing with Rx-Promotion, a rogue Internet pharmacy affiliate program long rumored to have been co-founded by Vrublevsky (security firm Dell SecureWorks chronicled those attacks last year).

Artimovich allegedly used the nickname Engel on Spamdot.biz, an online forum owned by the co-founders of SpamIt and GlavMed, sister rogue pharmacy operations that competed directly with Rx-promotion. In the screen shot below right, Engel can be seen communicating with Spamdot member and SpamIt affiliate “Docent.” That was the nickname used by Oleg Nikolaenko, a 24-year-old Russian man arrested in Las Vegas in Nov. 2010  charged with operating the Mega-D botnet.

Engel earned thousands of dollars spamming for both Rx-Promotion and SpamIt, but he abruptly quit the SpamIt program in 2009 after accusing its administrators — Igor Gusev and Dmitry Stupin — of under-counting his sales and commissions. Engel would go off and launch his own forum  — Spamplanet.net — while at the same time using Festi to launch DDoS attacks against SpamIt and GlavMed.

Engel probably regrets those attacks now. As I’ve previously reported, Gusev allegedly paid $50,000 to corrupt officials in Russia to launch a criminal investigation into Artimovich’s activities, and to probe his connections with Vrublevsky.

Interestingly, Engel’s profile on Spamdot.biz lists his email address as “[email protected]”. That domain is no longer online, but archive.org reveals that Engel used it as the home base for a bot whose sole purpose was to harvest email addresses from billions of Web pages. Engel claimed publicly that the bot was nothing more than a research project, but privately to Spamdot members he bragged that his search bot could scour hundreds of sites simultaneously and quickly collect “hundreds of megabytes” of email lists.

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