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Ransomware cybercrime ring dismantled in Europe

Suspects are accused of infecting millions of computers with a virus to extort perhaps millions of dollars from computer users in 30 countries.

A cybercrime ring that infected millions of computers with ransonmware to extort possibly millions of dollars from people in 30 nations has been broken up, the European police agency said today.

Masquerading as police agencies, the suspects paralyzed computers with a virus and told their owners that illegal online activity had been detected and that a fine would have to be paid to unlock their computers, Europol announced in Madrid.

Investigators said they had identified up to 48 variants of the virus, which typically installs itself by tricking users into downloading a malicious executable filed via a socially engineered message.

The gang demanded fines of 100 pounds ($134), which at least 3 percent of victims paid, Europol Director Rob Wainwright said at a news conference in Madrid, according to Reuters.

"It's impossible to know for sure how many citizens were affected by this, but we estimate hundreds of thousands of Europeans were," said Wainwright, adding that the gang had invoked his own name in its activities. "If we take into account that the average fine was 100 euros and 3 percent...paid it, then the estimated damage is millions of euros."

The suspected leader of the network -- a 27-year-old Russian -- was arrested in the United Arab Emirates in December, said Francisco Martinez, Spain's secretary of state for security. Ten other suspects, including six Russians, two Ukrainians, and two Georgians, were arrested on Spain's Costa del Sol, a popular tourist destination on the Mediterranean coast.

The virus was first detected two years ago after infecting about 20,000 computers in six nations. The network would eventually expand to 30 nations, investigators said.

The Spanish government said it has received more than 750,000 queries from computers users seeking advice on how to unlock their computers.