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Invasion of the Computer Snatchers

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"This buddy of mine who lived two houses down from me had a computer before I did. He was always on AOL, but he also always had trouble figuring out how to do stuff, so I'd just go on all the time and figure it out for him." 0x80 says he got into writing viruses by accident after logging onto an AOL chat room named "Lesbians Only."

"Someone sent me a virus that made it so that every time I typed anything on the keyboard it would pop a message up on the screen that said, 'I'M [expletive] GAY!'" 0x80 recalls. He tried to stop the computer from flashing the message, but nothing worked. "I finally found [information] on it using my friend's PC and figured out how to write a batch script to stop the virus."

After that, 0x80 became obsessed with computer viruses and dedicated nearly all his time to tinkering with them. On his 16th birthday, his folks gave him his own computer to do schoolwork. It wasn't long before 0x80 was skipping school to spend time in online channels known as Internet Relay Chat, a vast sea of text-based communications networks that predates instant-messaging software. There are tens of thousands of IRC channels all over the world catering to almost every imaginable audience or interest, including quite a few frequented exclusively by hackers, virus writers and loose-knit criminal groups. IRC channels have traditionally been among the most popular means of controlling botnets.

About two years ago, 0x80 entered an IRC channel where several hackers were bragging about how much they were making using botnets to install spyware. Up to that point, 0x80 had used his botnet mainly for "packeting," conducting petty denial-of-service attacks to knock his buddies or enemies offline. Within a few weeks of visiting that channel, 0x80 was modifying the computer worm code he needed to transform his botnet into a money machine.

He and his hacker friends are part of a generation raised on the Internet, where everything from software to digital music to a reliable income can be had at little cost or effort. Some of them routinely go out of their way to avoid paying for anything. During a recent conference call with half a dozen of 0x80's buddies using an 800-number conferencing system they had hacked, one guy suggests ordering food for delivery. Nah, one of his friends says, "let's social it." The hackers take turns explaining how they "social" free food from pizza joints by counterfeiting coupons or impersonating customer service managers.

"Dude, the best part is when you walk in, you hand them the coupon or whatever, they give you your [pizza], and you walk out," one of them enthuses. "Then, it's like, yes, I am . . . the coolest man alive."

"Dude, that's so true," echoes a 16-year-old hacker. "Free pizza tastes so much better than pay pizza any day."

0x80 expresses some ambivalence about this lifestyle and occasionally ponders what he should do next. He's toyed with the notion of going to a community college to get a degree in computer science, but the idea of getting an honest job with a legitimate tech company doesn't hold much appeal. "I'd probably have to take a pretty bad pay cut no matter where I worked," he says.

Asked whether he worries about getting caught, 0x80 stuffs his hands into his jeans pockets, shrugs his shoulders and looks down at his shoes. "To tell the truth, man, I'm sorta surprised they haven't caught me yet." He claims he doesn't care but then confesses that he dedicates quite a bit of time to covering his tracks. "I do stay up very late each night trying to make sure nobody is going to kick in my front door . . . If I do [get caught], I'm not all that worried. I've got enough money. I can always get a good lawyer."

 

Adware and spyware distribution companies promise instant riches to people who agree to help install their programs. These installers are known in the business as "affiliates."

Many adware distribution sites recruit affiliates with photos of stacked $100 bills. GammaCash.com, for instance, the company that makes the XXX toolbar that Michael White discovered on his computer, features an animated image of a pair of hands cupped to hold an expensive watch. Wait a few seconds, and the watch disappears, only to be replaced by a Cadillac sport utility vehicle, which quickly morphs into a yacht.

The companies include in their "terms and conditions" disclaimers that they do not permit the installation of their products without the consent of the person who owns the computer. Most claim they will terminate without pay any affiliates who violate that rule.


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