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3 Iranians charged by US over broad hacking campaign that included Israeli targets

Justice Department official says suspects didn’t seem to be working for Iran’s government, but blames Islamic Republic for allowing hackers to largely operate with impunity

An illustrative photo of a person typing on a keyboard as part of a cyber breach. (Techa Tungateja; iStock by Getty Images)
An illustrative photo of a person typing on a keyboard as part of a cyber breach. (Techa Tungateja; iStock by Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The US Justice Department said Wednesday that three Iranian citizens have been charged in the United States with cyberattacks that targeted power companies, local governments and small businesses and nonprofits, including a domestic violence shelter.

Mansour Ahmadi, 34, Ahmad Khatibi Aghda, 45, and Amir Hossein Nickaein, 30, are accused of having carried out a series of cyberattacks since October 2020 against hundreds of victims in the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, Russia, but also inside Iran, according to the indictment.

Prosecutors say the hackers encrypted and stole data from victim networks and threatened to release it unless exorbitant ransom payments were made. In some cases, the victims made those payments, the department said.

The hackers are not believed to have been working on behalf of the Iranian government but instead for their own financial gain, and some of the victims were even in Iran, according to a senior Justice Department official who briefed reporters on the case on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the department. But the official said the activity exists because hackers are permitted by the Iranian government to largely operate with impunity.

The three accused hackers are thought to be in Iran and have not been arrested, but the Justice Department official said the pending charges make it “functionally impossible” for them to leave the country.

The case was filed in federal court in New Jersey, where a municipality in Union County was hacked last year.

One of the victims was a domestic violence shelter in Pennsylvania, which the indictment says was extorted out of $13,000 to recover its hacked data.

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