New Delhi-based BellTroX InfoTech Services targeted government officials in Europe, gambling tycoons in the Bahamas, and well-known investors in the United States including private equity giant KKR and short seller Muddy Waters, according to three former employees, outside researchers, and a trail of online evidence.
Aspects of BellTroX’s hacking spree aimed at American targets are currently under investigation by U.S. law enforcement, five people familiar with the matter told Reuters. The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment.
Reuters does not know the identity of BellTroX’s clients. In a telephone interview, the company’s owner, Sumit Gupta, declined to disclose who had hired him and denied any wrongdoing.
Muddy Waters founder Carson Block said he was “disappointed, but not surprised, to learn that we were likely targeted for hacking by a client of BellTroX.” KKR declined to comment.
Researchers at internet watchdog group Citizen Lab, who spent more than two years mapping out the infrastructure used by the hackers, released a report here on Tuesday saying they had “high confidence” that BellTroX employees were behind the espionage campaign.
“This is one of the largest spy-for-hire operations ever exposed,” said Citizen Lab researcher John Scott-Railton.
Although they receive a fraction of the attention devoted to state-sponsored espionage groups or headline-grabbing heists, “cyber mercenary” services are widely used, he said. “Our investigation found that no sector is immune.”
A cache of data reviewed by Reuters provides insight into the operation, detailing tens of thousands of malicious messages designed to trick victims into giving up their passwords that were sent by BellTroX between 2013 and 2020. The data was supplied on condition of anonymity by online service providers used by the hackers after Reuters alerted the firms to unusual patterns of activity on their platforms.
The data is effectively a digital hit list showing who was targeted and when. Reuters validated the data by checking it against emails received by the targets.
On the list: judges in South Africa, politicians in Mexico, lawyers in France and environmental groups in the United States. These dozens of people, among the thousands targeted by BellTroX, did not respond to messages or declined comment.
Reuters was not able to establish how many of the hacking attempts were successful.
BellTroX’s Gupta was charged in a 2015 hacking case in which two U.S. private investigators admitted to paying him to hack the accounts of marketing executives. Gupta was declared a fugitive in 2017, although the U.S. Justice Department declined to comment on the current status of the case or whether an extradition request had been issued.
Speaking by phone from his home in New Delhi, Gupta denied hacking and said he had never been contacted by law enforcement. He said he had only ever helped private investigators download messages from email inboxes after they provided him with login details.