By Bernard Vaughan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Three foreign nationals have been charged with creating and distributing a computer virus that infected more than a million computers around the world, including some operated by the U.S. space agency, U.S. prosecutors said on Wednesday.
The defendants were charged with running a cybercrime ring that released the so-called Gozi virus, which prosecutors said was one of the most financially destructive computer viruses in history.
The virus infected at least 40,000 computers in the United States, authorities said. It was used to access personal bank account information from computer users and steal millions of dollars from customer accounts globally, according to papers filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.
The defendants -- Deniss Calovskis, 27, a Latvian; Nikita Kuzmin, 25, a Russian; and Mihai Ionut Paunescu, 28, a Romanian -- were charged with a variety of counts, including conspiracy to commit computer intrusion and conspiracy to commit bank fraud.
They ran a "modern-day bank robbery ring that required neither a gun nor a mask," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said at a news conference.
Kuzmin, who helped create the virus, pleaded guilty in May 2011 and has been cooperating with the investigation, said George Venizelos, assistant director-in-charge for the Federal Bureau of Investigation's New York office.
The investigation is still "very much ongoing," Venizelos told the news conference.
Investigators have collected 51 computer servers and other equipment with some 250 million megabytes of information as part of the probe, he said, adding that law enforcement officials in several countries were helping with the investigation.
Kuzmin was arrested in the United States in November 2010. Paunescu was arrested this past November in Romania while Calovskis was arrested in December in Latvia, Venizelos said. He said Paunescu and Calovskis were awaiting extradition.
David Gordon, a lawyer representing Kuzmin, did not immediately return a call seeking comment. Attorney information for the other defendants was not immediately available.
The virus infected more than 160 NASA computers, resulting in more than $40,000 in damage, prosecutors said in the court documents.
It was unclear if the virus affected NASA's operations, and a spokeswoman from the agency had no immediate comment.
Kuzmin conceived of the virus in or around 2005 and recruited Calovskis to help write its code, prosecutors said.
According to the government's charges, the men sold the virus online in what Bharara called an "Internet bazaar" for as much as $50,000.
Paunescu is accused of operating a Web hosting service from computers in Romania, the United States and elsewhere that helped people who bought the virus avoid detection by authorities, according to court papers.
"Instead of 'this gun's for hire,' Kuzmin's operation was 'this virus for hire,'" Venizelos said. The virus was often updated and improved for customers in what Venizelos said was their own version of tech support.
In one scenario, the defendants created fake welcome pages for banks that asked for customer PIN numbers and other sensitive information, Bharara said.
(Reporting By Bernard Vaughan; Editing by Martha Graybow, Leslie Gevirtz and Leslie Adler)