Two Iranian computer hackers were charged Wednesday in connection with a multimillion-dollar cybercrime and extortion scheme that targeted government agencies like the Colorado Department of Transportation, cities and businesses, the Justice Department said.
Faramarz Shahi Savandi, 34, and Mohammad Mehdi Shah Mansouri, 27, are accused of creating ransomware known as SamSam that encrypted data on the computers of more than 200 victims, including the cities of Atlanta and Newark, New Jersey.
Starting in January 2016, the hackers were able to exploit cyber weaknesses, gain access to the victims’ computers and install the ransomware remotely, prosecutors said. The hackers would then allegedly encrypt the files on the computers and demand that the victims pay a ransom in bitcoin in order to have their data unlocked.
Debbi Blyth, the chief information security officer with the Colorado governor's Office of Information Technology, said approximately 1,550 workstations and 400 servers were impacted at CDOT. The agencies business operations were off line for a full month.
“We worked very, very closely with the FBI, in fact they were on site every single day, and we turned over all of the information that we had to them to help with their investigation,” Blyth said. “I'm very pleased that you know nine months later this has resulted in an indictment and I'm very hopeful that the individuals will be brought to justice.”
Colorado paid no ransom during the February CDOT attack, but work to contain and eradicate the ransomware cost at least $1.5 million. The state also invested in new security controls after the attack.
Beyond the Colorado Department of Transportation hack, other victims included the Port of San Diego and six health care companies across the U.S., according to the Justice Department. The hackers, who are not believed to be connected to the Iranian government, were able to make about $6 million and caused overall losses of more than $30 million, prosecutors said.
“SamSam ransomware is a dangerous escalation of cybercrime,” said Craig Carpenito, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, where Wednesday’s indictment was unsealed. “This is a new type of cybercriminal. Money is not their sole objective. They are seeking to harm our institutions and our critical infrastructure.”
The Justice Department would not say whether any of the municipalities paid the ransom. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in April that Atlanta entered into emergency contracts worth $2.7 million to help restore the city’s computer network after the attack.
The hacking scheme was sophisticated not only because it targeted public institutions but because the hackers targeted the entities after business hours and used European-based servers to launch the remote attacks, Carpenito said.
The two men remained fugitives and were believed to be in Iran. Although the U.S. does not have an extradition treaty with Iran, the Justice Department expressed some confidence that the men may one day face the inside of a U.S. courtroom.
“American justice has a long arm and we will wait and eventually we’re confident that we will take these perpetrators into custody,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosentein said.