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BlackShades: Thousands 'hit by webcam malware'

More than half a million computers in approximately 100 countries were infected by sophisticated malware that lets cybercriminals remotely hijack a computer and its webcam, authorities have said, as charges were announced against nearly 100 people worldwide.

A total of 97 people suspected of using or distributing the malicious software, called BlackShades, have been arrested in 16 countries, including the software's owner, a 24-year-old Swedish man.

Koen Hermans, a Netherlands official in Eurojust, the European Union's criminal investigation coordination unit, said: "This case is a strong reminder that no-one is safe while using the internet.

"It should serve as a warning and deterrent to those involved in the manufacture and use of this software."

US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, called BlackShades a "frightening form of cybercrime," saying a cybercriminal could buy a 40 dollar (£23) malicious program whose capabilities are "sophisticated, and its invasiveness breathtaking".

FBI agent Leo Taddeo said people who suspect they are BlackShades victims should visit to learn how to check computers.

Authorities said the BlackShades Remote Access Tool, or "RAT", has been sold since 2010 to several thousand users, generating sales of more than 350,000 dollars (£208,000). The agency said one of the program's co-creators is cooperating with inquiries and has provided extensive information.

BlackShades owner, Alex Yucel, was arrested in Moldova last November, and is facing extradition to the United States. Michael Hogue, 23, of Maricopa, Arizona - the program's co-creator - pleaded guilty in New York after his June 2012 arrest and is cooperating, Mr Bharara said.

The malware lets hackers steal personal information, intercept keystrokes and hijack webcams to secretly record computer users. BlackShades also can be used to encrypt and lock computer data files, forcing people to pay a ransom to regain access.

The hacking tool's low cost has boosted its popularity across the hacker underground, where variants have long circulated online.

Last year, security firm Symantec said the use of BlackShades was rising, with program licenses costing 40 dollars to 100 dollars (£23-£59).

French officials said raids last week followed the FBI's arrest of two BlackShades developers and its distribution of a list of the malware's customers.

Law enforcement coordination agencies Europol and Eurojust, based in The Hague, Netherlands, said police in 13 European countries - Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Moldova, the Netherlands and Switzerland and the UK, as well as in the United States, Canada and Chile - raided 359 properties and seized cash, firearms, drugs and more than 1,000 data storage devices.

In Paris, the state prosecutor's office said more than two dozen people were arrested during the May 13 raids. It said those arrested were identified by the FBI as French "citizens who had acquired or used this software".

In a previous BlackShades-related investigation, Dutch police arrested an 18-year-old man for using the malware to take pictures of women and girls within view of webcams on about 2,000 computers.

A Southern California man who was sentenced in March to prison for hacking the computers of a future Miss Teen USA and other young women was not part of the case. Authorities say that he had BlackShades on his computer, but that it was not clear whether he used it or another program.

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