By Nate Raymond
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The accused mastermind behind a group called BlackShades pleaded guilty in federal court on Wednesday to distributing software that U.S. authorities say was used to hack into half a million computers worldwide.
Alex Yucel, a 24-year-old Swede, pleaded guilty in Manhattan federal court to engaging in the distribution of malicious software as part of a plea deal ahead of his March 23 trial.
"I aided and abetted others by knowingly transmitting the program BlackShades, which caused damage to a computer without authorization," Yucel, dressed in blue jail garb, said in court.
The plea came after Yucel earlier this month apparently backed out of a prior plea deal, without any explanation. He has agreed to waive his right to appeal if he receives less than 7-1/4 years in prison when he is sentenced on May 22.
The charges against Yucel were unveiled in May 2014 as U.S. and European authorities announced the arrest of about 100 people in connection with BlackShades.
BlackShades sold software that gave hackers remote control of other people's computers, allowing them to record keystrokes, steal passwords and gain access to personal files, according to authorities.
Yucel, who was arrested in November 2013 in Moldova and later extradited to the United States, ran the BlackShades organization under the alias "marjinz," prosecutors said.
Authorities said the organization sold a program called the "BlackShades Remote Access Tool" to thousands of users in more than 100 countries since 2010.
Prosecutors said Yucel employed paid administrators, including a marking director and customer service representatives, to bolster his business, enabling BlackShades to generate sales of more than $350,000 by April 2014.
The inexpensive software, which could be bought for $40, was used in some cases to take over computers' cameras to spy on their owners, prosecutors said.
Other hackers froze people's computers and sent ransom notes demanding payment before they would unlock the machines, authorities said.
The investigation into BlackShades grew out of a separate cybercrime sting by the FBI, "Operation Card Shop," in which authorities created a fake website to ensnare criminals seeking to buy and sell credit card numbers.
One of those arrested in that probe, Arizona resident Michael Hogue, turned out to be the co-creator of BlackShades' RAT and agreed to cooperate with the government as part of a plea agreement.
The case is U.S. v. Yucel, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 13-cr-00834.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Tom Brown)