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'Botmaster' pleads guilty to computer crimes

A 20-year-old accused of using hundreds of thousands of hijacked computers, or "bot nets," to damage systems and send massive waves of spam across the Internet, pleaded guilty to federal charges yesterday.

Jeanson James Ancheta, who prosecutors said was a well-known member of the "Botmaster Underground" -- a secret network of hackers skilled in "bot" attacks -- was arrested in November in what prosecutors said was the first such case of its kind.

The Los Angeles area man pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, damaging computers used by the U.S. government and fraud. He had been scheduled to stand trial later this year on a 17-count indictment.

Ancheta faces a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison, although prosecutors say federal guidelines recommend between five and seven years.

"Mr. Ancheta was responsible for a particularly insidious string of crimes," U.S. Attorney's spokesman Thom Mrozek said. "He hijacked somewhere in the area of half a million computer systems. This not only affected computers like the one in your home, but it allowed him and others to orchestrate large scale attacks."

A bot is a program that surreptitiously installs itself on a computer so it can be controlled by a hacker. A bot net is a network of such robot, or "zombie," computers, which can harness their collective power to do considerable damage or send out huge amounts of junk email.

Prosecutors say the case was unique because Ancheta was accused of profiting from his attacks by selling access to his "bot nets" to other hackers and planting adware, software that causes advertisements to pop up, into infected computers.

Among computers he attacked were some at the Weapons Division of the U.S. Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, California, and at the U.S. Department of Defense.

In entering the guilty pleas, Ancheta admitted using computer servers he controlled to transmit malicious code over the Web to scan for and exploit vulnerable computers, which he then controlled as "zombie" machines.

As part of the plea, he agreed to pay some $15,000 in restitution to the military facilities and forfeit the proceeds of his illicit activities, including more than $60,000 in cash, a BMW automobile and computer equipment.

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