Syrians Accused of Computer Hack That Prompted Stock Drop

  • Prosecutors say three men are part of Syrian Electronic Army
  • Hijacked Twitter feed sent Dow average down 143 points

Three Syrian men have been charged with launching high-profile cyber-attacks on U.S. institutions, including one incident that sent the Dow Jones Industrial Average down by more than 140 points.

The trio, allegedly part of a group known as the Syrian Electronic Army, are accused of hacking into computer systems operated by Harvard University and news outlets including the Associated Press and Thomson Reuters Corp. over a two-year period starting in 2011, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.

The alleged hackers include Ahmad Umar Agha, 22, known online as “The Pro,” and Firas Dandar, 27, who goes by the online alias “The Shadow.” They took over the Associated Press’s Twitter feed in 2013 and sent fake alerts that U.S. President Barack Obama had been injured in a White House bombing, according to prosecutors. The bogus dispatches caused the Dow to fall by 143 points on April 23, 2013, wiping out more than $80 billion in value.

The Syrian Electronic Army is a group of hackers whose aim is to punish opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, which is engaged in a civil war against rebels supported by the U.S. and other governments.

Computer hacking costs businesses around the world more than $300 billion a year, according to a 2015 study by the Grant Thornton consulting firm. The study found 15 percent of the companies contacted said they had suffered cyber attacks and the incidents cost U.S. firms an estimated $61 billion last year.

‘Spear-Phishing’

The hackers, believed to be operating out of Syria, allegedly used a technique known as “spear-phishing” to compromise the computer systems of U.S. institutions. E-mails containing malicious software were used to gain access to the targets’ websites. That allowed the hackers to redirect information to their own sites to steal e-mail and hijack social-media accounts, prosecutors said. The group also unsuccessfully sought to target White House computers, prosecutors said.

In one instance, the group took control of a U.S. Marine recruiting website and put up a fake post urging potential recruits to “refuse their orders,” prosecutors said.

The government has offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Agha and Dandar. A third man, Peter Romar, 36, also has been charged in connection with the hacking incidents.

Romar and Dandar are accused of extortion for allegedly hacking into U.S. company computer systems and threatening to destroy data or publicize proprietary information unless they were paid.

The charges were unsealed Tuesday in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia.

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