Quebec provincial police conducted raids on Wednesday, breaking up a hacking ring that police say is responsible for an estimated CDN$45m in damage to computer systems.

The hackers installed remote-controlled 'botnet' software on victims' computers in order to run phishing and spamming operations, said Captain Frederick Gaudreau, of the Surete du Quebec, in a videotaped press conference posted to the police agency's website. "The hackers managed to install botnets on the victims' computers, which permitted them to control at a distance the victims' computers," he said. "These said computers were then used to attack Web sites in order to steal victims' data."

If convicted of computer hacking charges, the accused could face 10 years in prison, he said.

Although the hackers operated from about a dozen towns all over Quebec, their botnet network was international in scope, infecting 39,000 computers in Poland, 28,000 in Brazil, and 26,000 in Mexico - the top three countries affected by the group. In all, they hacked into more than 100,000 computers in 100 countries.

The accused range in age from 17 years old to 26 years old, but police did not release the names of the accused. Three of them are minors, Gaudreau said.

This is the first time that Canadian authorities have dismantled such a network, he added. The investigation was done in collaboration with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.