Three men are facing federal fraud charges for allegedly raking in more than US$100 million while running an illegal "scareware" business that tricked victims into installing bogus software.
Two of the men, Bjorn Sundin and Shaileshkumar Jain, operated an antivirus company called Innovative Marketing, which sold products such as WinFixer, Antivirus 2008, Malware Alarm and VirusRemover 2008. The third man charged, James Reno, ran Byte Hosting Internet Services, the company that operated Innovative Marketing's call centers.
The company's products generated so many consumer complaints that the FTC brought a civil action against Innovative Marketing and Byte Hosting in 2008, effectively putting them out of business.
On Wednesday, a grand jury in Chicago handed down the criminal charges, meaning the three men now face jail time if convicted.
Reno is expected to turn himself in for arraignment, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a press release Thursday. Authorities believe that Jain and Sundin are living in Ukraine and Sweden, respectively.
In a September 2009 e-mail to the IDG News Service, Reno said he was a young and naïve businessmen who was taken advantage of by Innovative Marketing. "I made some mistakes, of course," he said, "however they kept us in the dark on a lot of their operation."
According to prosecutors, Innovative Marketing set up fictitious advertising agencies that would buy online inventory from media companies, pretending to represent legitimate companies. They then pushed out ads with hidden computer code that generated scary-looking pop-up messages, designed to look like operating system errors or antivirus scans.
The end result was always the same. To get rid of the pop-up warnings, users would have to buy Innovative Marketing's worthless software, prosecutors allege.
Byte Hosting's call centers were then used to "deflect complaints from victims who purchased Innovative Marketing software products," the Department of Justice (DoJ) said.
The scheme convinced victims in more than 60 countries to buy more than 1 million bogus programs, the DoJ said.