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Fanwood Resident Pleads Guilty in Rutgers Hacking Case

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Paras Jha and Josiah White co-founded Protraf Solutions LLC, a company that would target companies with cyberattacks and extort from them to end the attacks. Credits: KrebsOnSecurity.com
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TRENTON, NJ – A 21-year-old Fanwood resident, Paras Jha, and two other defendants have pleaded guilty in three cybercrime cases. Jha, a former Rutgers student, admitted to launching a cyber attack on the university's computer network. He and two others also pleaded guilty to creating and operating two "botnets" that targeted “Internet of Things” (IoT) devices.

Between Nov. 2014 and Sept. 2016, Jha executed a series of attacks on Rutgers' computer networks that effectively shut down university’s central authentication server by which staff, faculty, and students delivered assignments. Jha succeeded in taking the portal offline for multiple consecutive periods.

Jha pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp in Trenton federal court (NJ District) to violating the Computer Fraud & Abuse Act. The count to which Jha pleaded guilty is punishable by a maximum of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000, or twice the gross amount of any gain or loss derived from the offense (whichever is greater). Sentencing is scheduled for March 13, 2018.  

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On Dec. 8, 2017, Jha, and Josiah White, 20, of Washington, PA, and Dalton Norman, 21, of Metairie, LA, pleaded guilty to criminal informations in the District of Alaska charging them each with conspiracy to operate the "Mirai Botnet" in the summer and fall of 2016.

The hackers created a powerful botnet – a collection of computers infected with malicious software and controlled as a group without the knowledge or permission of the computers’ owners. The Mirai Botnet, targeted "IoT devices" – devices that have been connected to the Internet, including wireless cameras, routers, and digital video recorders. The cybercriminals discovered vulnerabilities that allowed them to attain administrative or high-level access to devices (and then forcing the devices to participate in the "Mirai Botnet.") At its peak, Mirai consisted of more than 100,000 compromised devices.

The defendants’ involvement with Mirai ended in the fall of 2016, when Jha posted the source code for Mirai on a criminal forum. Since then, other criminals have used Mirai variants in cyberattacks.

Jha and Norman infected primarily U.S.-based, Internet-connected computing devices -- such as home Internet routers -- with malicious software that caused the hijacked Internet routers and other devices to form a powerful botnet. The defendants then used the compromised devices as a network of proxies through which they routed Internet traffic.

The victim devices were used primarily in advertising fraud, including “clickfraud,” a type of Internet-based scheme that utilizes “clicks,” or the accessing of URLs and similar web content, for the purpose of artificially generating revenue.

“Paras Jha has admitted his responsibility for multiple hacks of the Rutgers University computer system,” Acting U.S. Attorney Fitzpatrick said. “These computer attacks shut down the server used for all communications among faculty, staff and students, including assignment of course work to students, and students’ submission of their work to professors to be graded."

"The defendant’s actions effectively paralyzed the system for days at a time and maliciously disrupted the educational process for tens of thousands of Rutgers’ students," Fitzpatrick continued. "Today, the defendant has admitted his role in this criminal offense and will face the legal consequences for it.”

“Today's guilty plea is a testament to the countless hours of hard work and dedication by law enforcement in the fight against cyber criminals,” FBI Newark Special Agent Timothy Gallagher said. “Cybercrime knows no boundaries. Dismantling these operations is possible only by working closely with our partners.”

“The Mirai and Clickfraud botnet schemes are powerful reminders that as we continue on a path of a more interconnected world, we must guard against the threats posed by cybercriminals that can quickly weaponize technological developments to cause vast and varied types of harm,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Cronan said. “The Criminal Division will remain constantly vigilant in combating these sophisticated schemes, prosecuting cybercriminals, and protecting the American people.”

For information on cybersecurity best practices for IoT devices, visit: https://www.justice.gov/criminal-ccips/page/file/984001/download .

All three cases were investigated by the FBI. The Rutgers University case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Shana Chen of the District of New Jersey. The Mirai Botnet and Clickfraud Botnet cases are being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Alexander of the District of Alaska and Trial Attorney C. Alden Pelker of the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section of the Criminal Division. Additional assistance was provided by the FBI Newark Cyber Task Force, Rutgers University Police Department, N.J. State Police, the Federal Protective Service, FBI’s New Orleans and Pittsburgh Field Offices, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana, the United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency, the French General Directorate for Internal Security, the National Cyber-Forensics & Training Alliance, Palo Alto Networks Unit 42, Google, Cloudflare, Coinbase, Flashpoint, Yahoo and Akamai.

Acting U.S. Attorney William E. Fitzpatrick of the District of New Jersey; Acting Assistant Attorney General John P. Cronan of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division; Special Agent in Charge Timothy Gallagher of the FBI’s Newark Division; U.S. Attorney Bryan D. Schroder of the District of Alaska; and Special Agent in Charge Marlin L. Ritzman of the FBI’s Anchorage Division and made the announcement. To read the complaint against Jha, click here.

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