By Bernard Vaughan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - An Estonian man pleaded guilty on Friday in U.S. federal court for his role in a massive Internet scam that targeted well-known websites such as iTunes, Netflix and The Wall Street Journal.
The scheme infected at least four million computers in more than 100 countries, including 500,000 in the United States, with malicious software, or malware, according to the indictment. It included a large number of computers at data centers located in New York, federal prosecutors said.
Valeri Aleksejev, 32, was the first of six Estonians and one Russian indicted in 2011 to enter a plea. They were indicted on five charges each of wire and computer intrusion. One of the defendants, Vladimir Tsastsin, was also charged with 22 counts of money laundering.
In U.S. District Court in Manhattan on Friday, Aleksejev pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. He faces up to 25 years in prison, deportation and the forfeiture of $7 million.
The scam had several components, including a "click-hijacking fraud" in which the malware re-routed searches by users on infected computers to sites designated by the defendants, prosecutors said in the indictment. Users of infected computers trying to access Apple Inc's iTunes website or Netflix Inc's movie website, for example, instead ended up at websites of unaffiliated businesses, according to the indictment.
Another component of the scam replaced legitimate advertisements on websites operated by News Corp's The Wall Street Journal, Amazon.com Inc and others with advertisements that triggered payments for the defendants, prosecutors said.
The defendants reaped at least $14 million from the fraud, prosecutors said. However, Aleksejev's lawyer, William Stampur, said in court on Friday that Aleksejev has no assets.
Estonian police arrested Aleksejev and the other Estonians in November 2011. One other Estonian, Anton Ivanov, has been extradited, and the extradition of the other four is pending, according to the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan. The Russian, Andrey Taame, remains at large, according to the U.S. Attorney's office.
Aleksejev told Magistrate Judge James Francis he assisted in blocking anti-virus software updates on infected computers. Francis asked Aleksejev if he knew what he was doing was illegal.
"I thought it was wrong," Aleksejev said in broken English after a long pause. "But of course I didn't know all the laws in the U.S."
Francis set a tentative sentencing date of May 31 for Aleksejev.
The case is USA v. Tsastsin et al, U.S. District Court in Manhattan, No. 11-00878.
(Reporting by Bernard Vaughan; Editing by Dan Grebler)