We’ve seen an ugly trend recently of tech news stories and cybersecurity firms trumpeting claims of ransomware attacks on companies large and small, apparently based on little more than the say-so of the ransomware gangs themselves. Such coverage is potentially quite harmful and plays deftly into the hands of organized crime.
Often the rationale behind couching these events as newsworthy is that the attacks involve publicly traded companies or recognizable brands, and that investors and the public have a right to know. But absent any additional information from the victim company or their partners who may be affected by the attack, these kinds of stories and blog posts look a great deal like ambulance chasing and sensationalism.
Currently, more than a dozen ransomware crime gangs have erected their own blogs to publish sensitive data from victims. A few of these blogs routinely issue self-serving press releases, some of which gallingly refer to victims as “clients” and cast themselves in a beneficent light. Usually, the blog posts that appear on ransom sites are little more than a teaser — screenshots of claimed access to computers, or a handful of documents that expose proprietary or financial information.
The goal behind the publication of these teasers is clear, and the ransomware gangs make no bones about it: To publicly pressure the victim company into paying up. Those that refuse to be extorted are told to expect that huge amounts of sensitive company data will be published online or sold on the dark web (or both).
Emboldened by their successes, several ransomware gangs recently have started demanding two ransoms: One payment to secure a digital key that can unlock files, folders and directories encrypted by their malware, and a second to avoid having any stolen information published or shared with others.
KrebsOnSecurity has sought to highlight ransomware incidents at companies whose core business involves providing technical services to others — particularly managed service providers that have done an exceptionally poor job communicating about the attack with their customers.
Overall, I’ve tried to use each story to call attention to key failures that frequently give rise to ransomware infections, and to offer information about how other companies can avoid a similar fate.
But simply parroting what professional extortionists have posted on their blog about victims of cybercrime smacks of providing aid and comfort to an enemy that needs and deserves neither.
Maybe you disagree, dear readers? Feel free to sound off in the comments below.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it harder for banks to trace the source of payment card data stolen from smaller, hacked online merchants. On the plus side, months of quarantine have massively decreased demand for account information that thieves buy and use to create physical counterfeit credit cards. But fraud experts say recent developments suggest both trends are about to change — and likely for the worse.
The economic laws of supply and demand hold just as true in the business world as they do in the cybercrime space. Global lockdowns from COVID-19 have resulted in far fewer fraudsters willing or able to visit retail stores to use their counterfeit cards, and the decreased demand has severely depressed prices in the underground for purloined card data.
That’s according to Gemini Advisory, a New York-based cyber intelligence firm that closely tracks the inventories of dark web stores trafficking in stolen payment card data.
Stas Alforov, Gemini’s director of research and development, said that since the beginning of 2020 the company has seen a steep drop in demand for compromised “card present” data — digits stolen from hacked brick-and-mortar merchants with the help of malicious software surreptitiously installed on point-of-sale (POS) devices.
Alforov said the median price for card-present data has dropped precipitously over the past few months.
“Gemini Advisory has seen over 50 percent decrease in demand for compromised card present data since the mandated COVID-19 quarantines in the United States as well as the majority of the world,” he told KrebsOnSecurity.
Meanwhile, the supply of card-present data has remained relatively steady. Gemini’s latest find — a 10-month-long card breach at dozens of Chicken Express locations throughout Texas and other southern states that the fast-food chain first publicly acknowledged today after being contacted by this author — saw an estimated 165,000 cards stolen from eatery locations recently go on sale at one of the dark web’s largest cybercrime bazaars.
“Card present data supply hasn’t wavered much during the COVID-19 period,” Alforov said. “This is likely due to the fact that most of the sold data is still coming from breaches that occurred in 2019 and early 2020.”
Naturally, crooks who ply their trade in credit card thievery also have been working from home more throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. That means demand for stolen “card-not-present” data — customer payment information extracted from hacked online merchants and typically used to defraud other e-commerce vendors — remains high. And so have prices for card-not-present data: Gemini found prices for this commodity actually increased slightly over the past few months.
Andrew Barratt is an investigator with Coalfire, the cyber forensics firm hired by Chicken Express to remediate the breach and help the company improve security going forward. Barratt said there’s another curious COVID-19 dynamic going on with e-commerce fraud recently that is making it more difficult for banks and card issuers to trace patterns in stolen card-not-present data back to hacked web merchants — particularly smaller e-commerce shops.
“One of the concerns that has been expressed to me is that we’re getting [fewer] overlapping hotspots,” Barratt said. “For a lot of the smaller, more frequently compromised merchants there has been a large drop off in transactions. Whilst big e-commerce has generally done okay during the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of more modest sized or specialty online retailers have not had the same access to their supply chain and so have had to close or drastically reduce the lines they’re selling.”
Banks routinely take groups of customer cards that have experienced fraudulent activity and try to see if some or all of them were used at the same merchant during a similar timeframe, a basic anti-fraud process known as “common point of purchase” or CPP analysis. But ironically, this analysis can become more challenging when there are fewer overall transactions going through a compromised merchant’s site, Barratt said.
“With a smaller transactional footprint means less Common Point of Purchase alerts and less data to work on to trigger a forensic investigation or fraud alert,” Barratt said. “It does also mean less fraud right now – which is a positive. But one of the big concerns that has been raised to us as investigators — literally asking if we have capacity for what’s coming — has been that merchants are getting compromised by ‘lie in wait’ type intruders.”
Barratt says there’s a suspicion that hackers may have established beachheads [breachheads?] in a number of these smaller online merchants and are simply biding their time. If and when transaction volumes for these merchants do pick up, the concern is then hackers may be in a better position to mix the sale of cards stolen from many hacked merchants and further confound CPP analysis efforts.
“These intruders may have a beachhead in a number of small and/or middle market e-commerce entities and they’re just waiting for the transaction volumes to go back up again and they’ve suddenly got the capability to have skimmers capturing lots of card data in the event of a sudden uptick in consumer spending,” he said. “They’d also have a diverse portfolio of compromise so could possibly even evade common point of purchase detection for a while too. Couple all of that with major shopping cart platforms going out of support (like Magento 1 this month) and furloughed IT and security staff, and there’s a potentially large COVID-19 breach bubble waiting to pop.”
With a majority of payment cards issued in the United States now equipped with a chip that makes the cards difficult and expensive for thieves to clone, cybercriminals have continued to focus on hacking smaller merchants that have not yet installed chip card readers and are still swiping the cards’ magnetic stripe at the register.
Barratt said his company has tied the source of the breach to malware known as “PwnPOS,” an ancient strain of point-of-sale malware that first surfaced more than seven years ago, if not earlier.
Chicken Express CEO Ricky Stuart told KrebsOnSecurity that apart from “a handful” of locations his family owns directly, most of his 250 stores are franchisees that decide on their own how to secure their payment operations. Nevertheless, the company is now forced to examine each store’s POS systems to remediate the breach.
Stuart blamed the major point-of-sale vendors for taking their time in supporting and validating chip-capable payment systems. But when asked how many of the company’s 250 stores had chip-capable readers installed, Stuart said he didn’t know. Ditto for the handful of stores he owns directly.
“I don’t know how many,” he said. “I would think it would be a majority. If not, I know they’re coming.”
A well-connected Russian hacker once described as “an asset of supreme importance” to Moscow was sentenced on Friday to nine years in a U.S. prison after pleading guilty to running a site that sold stolen payment card data, and to administering a highly secretive crime forum that counted among its members some of the most elite Russian cybercrooks.
Alexsei Burkov of St. Petersburg, Russia admitted to running CardPlanet, a site that sold more than 150,000 stolen credit card accounts, and to being a founder of DirectConnection — a closely guarded underground community that attracted some of the world’s most-wanted Russian hackers.
As KrebsOnSecurity noted in a November 2019 profile of Burkov’s hacker nickname ‘k0pa,’ “a deep dive into the various pseudonyms allegedly used by Burkov suggests this individual may be one of the most connected and skilled malicious hackers ever apprehended by U.S. authorities, and that the Russian government is probably concerned that he simply knows too much.”
Burkov was arrested in 2015 on an international warrant while visiting Israel, and over the ensuing four years the Russian government aggressively sought to keep him from being extradited to the United States.
When Israeli authorities turned down requests to send him back to Russia — supposedly to face separate hacking charges there — the Russians then imprisoned Israeli citizen Naama Issachar on trumped-up drug charges in a bid to trade prisoners. Nevertheless, Burkov was extradited to the United States in November 2019. Russian President Vladimir Putin pardoned Issachar in January 2020, just hours after Burkov pleaded guilty.
Arkady Bukh is a New York attorney who has represented a number of accused and convicted cybercriminals from Eastern Europe and Russia. Bukh said he suspects Burkov did not cooperate with the Justice Department investigators apart from agreeing not to take the case to trial.
“Nine years is a huge sentence, and the government doesn’t give nine years to defendants who cooperate,” Bukh said. “Also, the time span [between Burkov’s guilty plea and sentencing] was very short.”
DirectConnection was something of a Who’s Who of major cybercriminals, and many of its most well-known members have likewise been extradited to and prosecuted by the United States. Those include Sergey “Fly” Vovnenko, who was sentenced to 41 months in prison for operating a botnet and stealing login and payment card data. Vovnenko also served as administrator of his own cybercrime forum, which he used in 2013 to carry out a plan to have Yours Truly framed for heroin possession.
As noted in last year’s profile of Burkov, an early and important member of DirectConnection was a hacker who went by the moniker “aqua” and ran the banking sub-forum on Burkov’s site. In December 2019, the FBI offered a $5 million bounty leading to the arrest and conviction of aqua, who’s been identified as Maksim Viktorovich Yakubets. The Justice Department says Yakubets/aqua ran a transnational cybercrime organization called “Evil Corp.” that stole roughly $100 million from victims.
According to a statement of facts in Burkov’s case, the author of the infamous SpyEye banking trojan — Aleksandr “Gribodemon” Panin— was personally vouched for by Burkov. Panin was sentenced in 2016 to more than nine years in prison.
Other top DirectConnection members include convicted credit card fraudsters Vladislav “Badb” Horohorin and Sergey “zo0mer” Kozerev, as well as the infamous spammer and botnet master Peter “Severa” Levashov.
Also on Friday, the Justice Department said it obtained a guilty plea from another top cybercrime forum boss — Sergey “Stells” Medvedev — who admitted to administering the Infraud forum. The government says Infraud, whose slogan was “In Fraud We Trust,” attracted more than 10,000 members and inflicted more than $568 million in actual losses from the sale of stolen identity information, payment card data and malware.
A copy of the 108-month judgment entered against Burkov is available here (PDF).
The U.S. Justice Department today criminally charged a Canadian and a Northern Ireland man for allegedly conspiring to build botnets that enslaved hundreds of thousands of routers and other Internet of Things (IoT) devices for use in large-scale distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. In addition, a defendant in the United States was sentenced today to drug treatment and 18 months community confinement for his admitted role in the botnet conspiracy.
Indictments unsealed by a federal court in Alaska today allege 20-year-old Aaron Sterritt from Larne, Northern Ireland, and 31-year-old Logan Shwydiuk of Saskatoon, Canada conspired to build, operate and improve their IoT crime machines over several years.
Prosecutors say Sterritt, using the hacker aliases “Vamp” and “Viktor,” was the brains behind the computer code that powered several potent and increasingly complex IoT botnet strains that became known by exotic names such as “Masuta,” “Satori,” “Okiru” and “Fbot.”
Shwydiuk, a.k.a. “Drake,” “Dingle, and “Chickenmelon,” is alleged to have taken the lead in managing sales and customer support for people who leased access to the IoT botnets to conduct their own DDoS attacks.
A third member of the botnet conspiracy — 22-year-old Kenneth Currin Schuchman of Vancouver, Wash. — pleaded guilty in Sept. 2019 to aiding and abetting computer intrusions in September 2019. Schuchman, whose role was to acquire software exploits that could be used to infect new IoT devices, was sentenced today by a judge in Alaska to 18 months of community confinement and drug treatment, followed by three years of supervised release.
The government says the defendants built and maintained their IoT botnets by constantly scanning the Web for insecure devices. That scanning primarily targeted devices that were placed online with weak, factory default settings and/or passwords. But the group also seized upon a series of newly-discovered security vulnerabilities in these IoT systems — commandeering devices that hadn’t yet been updated with the latest software patches.
Some of the IoT botnets enslaved hundreds of thousands of hacked devices. For example, by November 2017, Masuta had infected an estimated 700,000 systems, allegedly allowing the defendants to launch crippling DDoS attacks capable of hurling 100 gigabits of junk data per second at targets — enough firepower to take down many large websites.
In 2015, then 15-year-old Sterritt was involved in the high-profile hack against U.K. telecommunications provider TalkTalk. Sterritt later pleaded guilty to his part in the intrusion, and at his sentencing in 2018 was ordered to complete 50 hours of community service.
The indictments against Sterritt and Shwydiuk (PDF) do not mention specific DDoS attacks thought to have been carried out with the IoT botnets. In an interview today with KrebsOnSecurity, prosecutors in Alaska declined to discuss any of their alleged offenses beyond building, maintaining and selling the above-mentioned IoT botnets.
But multiple sources tell KrebsOnSecuirty Vamp was principally responsible for the 2016 massive denial-of-service attack that swamped Dyn — a company that provides core Internet services for a host of big-name Web sites. On October 21, 2016, an attack by a Mirai-based IoT botnet variant overwhelmed Dyn’s infrastructure, causing outages at a number of top Internet destinations, including Twitter, Spotify, Reddit and others.
In 2018, authorities with the U.K.’s National Crime Agency (NCA) interviewed a suspect in connection with the Dyn attack, but ultimately filed no charges against the youth because all of his digital devices had been encrypted.
“The principal suspect of this investigation is a UK national resident in Northern Ireland,” reads a June 2018 NCA brief on their investigation into the Dyn attack (PDF), dubbed Operation Midmonth. “In 2018 the subject returned for interview, however there was insufficient evidence against him to provide a realistic prospect of conviction.”
The unsealing of the indictments against Sterritt and Shwydiuk came just minutes after Schuchman was sentenced today. Schuchman has been confined to an Alaskan jail for the past 13 months, and Chief U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess today ordered the sentence of 18 months community confinement to begin Aug. 1.
Community confinement in Schuchman’s case means he will spend most or all of that time in a drug treatment program. In a memo (PDF) released prior to Schuchman’s sentencing today, prosecutors detailed the defendant’s ongoing struggle with narcotics, noting that on multiple occasions he was discharged from treatment programs after testing positive for Suboxone — which is used to treat opiate addiction an is sometimes abused by addicts — and for possessing drug contraband.
The government’s sentencing memo also says Schuchman on multiple occasions absconded from pretrial supervision, and went right back to committing the botnet crimes for which he’d been arrested — even communicating with Sterritt about the details of the ongoing FBI investigation.
“Defendant’s performance on pretrial supervision has been spectacularly poor,” prosecutors explained. “Even after being interviewed by the FBI and put on restrictions, he continued to create and operate a DDoS botnet.”
Prosecutors told the judge that when he was ultimately re-arrested by U.S. Marshals, Schuchman was found at a computer in violation of the terms of his release. In that incident, Schuchman allegedly told his dad to trash his computer, before successfully encrypting his hard drive (which the Marshals service is still trying to decrypt). According to the memo, the defendant admitted to marshals that he had received and viewed videos of “juveniles engaged in sex acts with other juveniles.”
“The circumstances surrounding the defendant’s most recent re-arrest are troubling,” the memo recounts. “The management staff at the defendant’s father’s apartment complex, where the defendant was residing while on abscond status, reported numerous complaints against the defendant, including invitations to underage children to swim naked in the pool.”
Adam Alexander, assistant US attorney for the district of Alaska, declined to say whether the DOJ would seek extradition of Sterritt and Shwydiuk. Alexander said the success of these prosecutions is highly dependent on the assistance of domestic and international law enforcement partners, as well as a list of private and public entities named at the conclusion of the DOJ’s press release on the Schuchman sentencing (PDF).
Chief Judge Burgess was the same magistrate who presided over the 2018 sentencing of the co-authors of Mirai, a highly disruptive IoT botnet strain whose source code was leaked online in 2016 and was built upon by the defendants in this case. Both Mirai co-authors were sentenced to community service and home confinement thanks to their considerable cooperation with the government’s ongoing IoT botnet investigations.
Asked whether he was satisfied with the sentence handed down against Schuchman, Alexander maintained it was more than just another slap on the wrist, noting that Schuchman has waived his right to appeal the conviction and faces additional confinement of two years if he absconds again or fails to complete his treatment.
“In every case the statutory factors have to do with the history of the defendants, who in these crimes tend to be extremely youthful offenders,” Alexander said. “In this case, we had a young man who struggles with mental health and really pronounced substance abuse issues. Contrary to what many people might think, the goal of the DOJ in cases like this is not to put people in jail for as long as possible but to try to achieve the best balance of safeguarding communities and affording the defendant the best possible chance of rehabilitation.”
William Walton, supervisory special agent for the FBI’s cybercrime investigation division in Anchorage, Ala., said he hopes today’s indictments and sentencing send a clear message to what he described as a relatively insular and small group of individuals who are still building, running and leasing IoT-based botnets to further a range of cybercrimes.
“One of the things we hope in our efforts here and in our partnerships with our international partners is when we identify these people, we want very much to hold them to account in a just but appropriate way,” Walton said. “Hopefully, any associates who are aspiring to fill the vacuum once we take some players off the board realize that there are going to be real consequences for doing that.”
Hundreds of thousands of potentially sensitive files from police departments across the United States were leaked online last week. The collection, dubbed “BlueLeaks” and made searchable online, stems from a security breach at a Texas web design and hosting company that maintains a number of state law enforcement data-sharing portals.
The collection — nearly 270 gigabytes in total — is the latest release from Distributed Denial of Secrets (DDoSecrets), an alternative to Wikileaks that publishes caches of previously secret data.
In a post on Twitter, DDoSecrets said the BlueLeaks archive indexes “ten years of data from over 200 police departments, fusion centers and other law enforcement training and support resources,” and that “among the hundreds of thousands of documents are police and FBI reports, bulletins, guides and more.”
Fusion centers are state-owned and operated entities that gather and disseminate law enforcement and public safety information between state, local, tribal and territorial, federal and private sector partners.
KrebsOnSecurity obtained an internal June 20 analysis by the National Fusion Center Association (NFCA), which confirmed the validity of the leaked data. The NFCA alert noted that the dates of the files in the leak actually span nearly 24 years — from August 1996 through June 19, 2020 — and that the documents include names, email addresses, phone numbers, PDF documents, images, and a large number of text, video, CSV and ZIP files.
“Additionally, the data dump contains emails and associated attachments,” the alert reads. “Our initial analysis revealed that some of these files contain highly sensitive information such as ACH routing numbers, international bank account numbers (IBANs), and other financial data as well as personally identifiable information (PII) and images of suspects listed in Requests for Information (RFIs) and other law enforcement and government agency reports.”
The NFCA said it appears the data published by BlueLeaks was taken after a security breach at Netsential, a Houston-based web development firm.
“Preliminary analysis of the data contained in this leak suggests that Netsential, a web services company used by multiple fusion centers, law enforcement, and other government agencies across the United States, was the source of the compromise,” the NFCA wrote. “Netsential confirmed that this compromise was likely the result of a threat actor who leveraged a compromised Netsential customer user account and the web platform’s upload feature to introduce malicious content, allowing for the exfiltration of other Netsential customer data.”
Reached via phone Sunday evening, Netsential Director Stephen Gartrell declined to comment for this story.
The NFCA said a variety of cyber threat actors, including nation-states, hacktivists, and financially-motivated cybercriminals, might seek to exploit the data exposed in this breach to target fusion centers and associated agencies and their personnel in various cyber attacks and campaigns.
The BlueLeaks data set was released June 19, also known as “Juneteenth,” the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. This year’s observance of the date has generated renewed public interest in the wake of widespread protests against police brutality and the filmed killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Stewart Baker, an attorney at the Washington, D.C. office of Steptoe & Johnson LLP and a former assistant secretary of policy at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said the BlueLeaks data is unlikely to shed much light on police misconduct, but could expose sensitive law enforcement investigations and even endanger lives.
“With this volume of material, there are bound to be compromises of sensitive operations and maybe even human sources or undercover police, so I fear it will put lives at risk,” Baker said. “Every organized crime operation in the country will likely have searched for their own names before law enforcement knows what’s in the files, so the damage could be done quickly. I’d also be surprised if the files produce much scandal or evidence of police misconduct. That’s not the kind of work the fusion centers do.”
Hundreds of popular websites now offer some form of multi-factor authentication (MFA), which can help users safeguard access to accounts when their password is breached or stolen. But people who don’t take advantage of these added safeguards may find it far more difficult to regain access when their account gets hacked, because increasingly thieves will enable multi-factor options and tie the account to a device they control. Here’s the story of one such incident.
As a career chief privacy officer for different organizations, Dennis Dayman has tried to instill in his twin boys the importance of securing their online identities against account takeovers. Both are avid gamers on Microsoft’s Xbox platform, and for years their father managed their accounts via his own Microsoft account. But when the boys turned 18, they converted their child accounts to adult, effectively taking themselves out from under their dad’s control.
On a recent morning, one of Dayman’s sons found he could no longer access his Xbox account. The younger Dayman admitted to his dad that he’d reused his Xbox profile password elsewhere, and that he hadn’t enabled multi-factor authentication for the account.
When the two of them sat down to reset his password, the screen displayed a notice saying there was a new Gmail address tied to his Xbox account. When they went to turn on multi-factor authentication for his son’s Xbox profile — which was tied to a non-Microsoft email address — the Xbox service said it would send a notification of the change to unauthorized Gmail account in his profile.
Wary of alerting the hackers that they were wise to their intrusion, Dennis tried contacting Microsoft Xbox support, but found he couldn’t open a support ticket from a non-Microsoft account. Using his other son’s Outlook account, he filed a ticket about the incident with Microsoft.
Dennis soon learned the unauthorized Gmail address added to his son’s hacked Xbox account also had enabled MFA. Meaning, his son would be unable to reset the account’s password without approval from the person in control of the Gmail account.
Luckily for Dayman’s son, he hadn’t re-used the same password for the email address tied to his Xbox profile. Nevertheless, the thieves began abusing their access to purchase games on Xbox and third-party sites.
“During this period, we started realizing that his bank account was being drawn down through purchases of games from Xbox and [Electronic Arts],” Dayman the elder recalled. “I pulled the recovery codes for his Xbox account out of the safe, but because the hacker came in and turned on multi-factor, those codes were useless to us.”
Microsoft support sent Dayman and his son a list of 20 questions to answer about their account, such as the serial number on the Xbox console originally tied to the account when it was created. But despite answering all of those questions successfully, Microsoft refused to let them reset the password, Dayman said.
“They said their policy was not to turn over accounts to someone who couldn’t provide the second factor,” he said.
Dayman’s case was eventually escalated to Tier 3 Support at Microsoft, which was able to walk him through creating a new Microsoft account, enabling MFA on it, and then migrating his son’s Xbox profile over to the new account.
Microsoft told KrebsOnSecurity that while users currently are not prompted to enable two-step verification upon sign-up, they always have the option to enable the feature.
“Users are also prompted shortly after account creation to add additional security information if they have not yet done so, which enables the customer to receive security alerts and security promotions when they login to their account,” the company said in a written statement. “When we notice an unusual sign-in attempt from a new location or device, we help protect the account by challenging the login and send the user a notification. If a customer’s account is ever compromised, we will take the necessary steps to help them recover the account.”
Certainly, not enabling MFA when it is offered is far more of a risk for people in the habit of reusing or recycling passwords across multiple sites. But any service to which you entrust sensitive information can get hacked, and enabling multi-factor authentication is a good hedge against having leaked or stolen credentials used to plunder your account.
What’s more, a great many online sites and services that do support multi-factor authentication are completely automated and extremely difficult to reach for help when account takeovers occur. This is doubly so if the attackers also can modify and/or remove the original email address associated with the account.
KrebsOnSecurity has long steered readers to the site twofactorauth.org, which details the various MFA options offered by popular websites. Currently, twofactorauth.org lists nearly 900 sites that have some form of MFA available. These range from authentication options like one-time codes sent via email, phone calls, SMS or mobile app, to more robust, true “2-factor authentication” or 2FA options (something you have and something you know), such as security keys or push-based 2FA such as Duo Security (an advertiser on this site and a service I have used for years).
Email, SMS and app-based one-time codes are considered less robust from a security perspective because they can be undermined by a variety of well-established attack scenarios, from SIM-swapping to mobile-based malware. So it makes sense to secure your accounts with the strongest form of MFA available. But please bear in mind that if the only added authentication options offered by a site you frequent are SMS and/or phone calls, this is still better than simply relying on a password to secure your account.
An information technology specialist at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was arrested this week on suspicion of hacking into the human resource databases of University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) in 2014, stealing personal data on more than 65,000 UPMC employees, and selling the data on the dark web.
On June 16, authorities in Michigan arrested 29-year-old Justin Sean Johnson in connection with a 43-count indictment on charges of conspiracy, wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.
Federal prosecutors in Pittsburgh allege that in 2013 and 2014 Johnson hacked into the Oracle PeopleSoft databases for UPMC, a $21 billion nonprofit health enterprise that includes more than 40 hospitals.
According to the indictment, Johnson stole employee information on all 65,000 then current and former employees, including their names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, and salaries.
The stolen data also included federal form W-2 data that contained income tax and withholding information, records that prosecutors say Johnson sold on dark web marketplaces to identity thieves engaged in tax refund fraud and other financial crimes. The fraudulent tax refund claims made in the names of UPMC identity theft victims caused the IRS to issue $1.7 million in phony refunds in 2014.
Johnson could not be reached for comment. At a court hearing in Pittsburgh this week, a judge ordered the defendant to be detained pending trial. Johnson’s attorney declined to comment on the charges.
Prosecutors allege Johnson’s intrusion into UPMC was not an isolated occurrence, and that for several years after the UPMC hack he sold personally identifiable information (PII) to buyers on dark web forums.
“The information was sold by Johnson on dark web forums for use by conspirators, who promptly filed hundreds of false form 1040 tax returns in 2014 using UPMC employee PII,” reads a statement from U.S. Attorney Scott Brady. “These false 1040 filings claimed hundreds of thousands of dollars of false tax refunds, which they converted into Amazon.com gift cards, which were then used to purchase Amazon merchandise which was shipped to Venezuela.”
The indictment says Johnson used the hacker aliases “DS and “TDS” to market the stolen records to identity thieves on the Evolution and AlphaBay dark web marketplaces. However, archived copies of the now-defunct dark web forums indicate those aliases are merely abbreviations that stand for “DearthStar” and “TheDearthStar,” respectively.
“You can expect good things come tax time as I will have lots of profiles with verified prior year AGIs to make your refund filing 10x easier,” TheDearthStar advertised in an August 2015 message to AlphaBay members.
In some cases, it appears these DearthStar identities were actively involved in not just selling PII and tax refund fraud, but also stealing directly from corporate payrolls.
In an Aug. 2015 post to AlphaBay titled “I’d like to stage a heist but…,” TheDearthStar solicited people to help him cash out access he had to the payroll systems of several different companies:
“… I have nowhere to send the money. I’d like to leverage the access I have to payroll systems of a few companies and swipe a chunk of their payroll. Ideally, I’d like to find somebody who has a network of trusted individuals who can receive ACH deposits.”
When another AlphaBay member asks how much he can get, TheDearthStar responds, “Depends on how many people end up having their payroll records ‘adjusted.’ Could be $1,000 could be $100,000.”
2014 and 2015 were particularly bad years for tax refund fraud, a form of identity theft which cost taxpayers and the U.S. Treasury billions of dollars. In April 2014, KrebsOnSecurity wrote about a spike in tax refund fraud perpetrated against medical professionals that caused many to speculate that one or more major healthcare providers had been hacked.
A follow-up story that same month examined the work of a cybercrime gang that was hacking into HR departments at healthcare organizations across the country and filing fraudulent tax refund requests with the IRS on employees of those victim firms.
The Justice Department’s indictment quotes from Johnson’s online resume as stating that he is proficient at installing and administering Oracle PeopleSoft systems. A LinkedIn resume for a Justin Johnson from Detroit says the same, and that for the past five months he has served as an information technology specialist at FEMA. A Facebook profile with the same photo belongs to a Justin S. Johnson from Detroit.
Johnson’s resume also says he was self-employed for seven years as a “cyber security researcher / bug bounty hunter” who was ranked in the top 1,000 by reputation on Hacker One, a program that rewards security researchers who find and report vulnerabilities in software and web applications.
“We must care as much about securing our systems as we care about running them if we are to make the necessary revolutionary change.” -CIA’s Wikileaks Task Force.
So ends a key section of a report the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency produced in the wake of a mammoth data breach in 2016 that led to Wikileaks publishing thousands of classified documents stolen from the agency’s offensive cyber operations division. The analysis highlights a shocking series of security failures at one of the world’s most secretive organizations, but the underlying weaknesses that gave rise to the breach also unfortunately are all too common in many organizations today.
The CIA produced the report in October 2017, roughly seven months after Wikileaks began publishing Vault 7 — reams of classified data detailing the CIA’s capabilities to perform electronic surveillance and cyber warfare. But the report’s contents remained shrouded from public view until earlier this week, when heavily redacted portions of it were included in a letter by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to the Director of National Intelligence.
The CIA acknowledged its security processes were so “woefully lax” that the agency probably would never have known about the data theft had Wikileaks not published the stolen documents online. What kind of security failures created an environment that allegedly allowed a former CIA employee to exfiltrate so much sensitive data? Here are a few, in no particular order:
- Failing to rapidly detect security incidents.
- Failing to act on warning signs about potentially risky employees.
- Moving too slowly to enact key security safeguards.
- A lack of user activity monitoring or robust server audit capability.
- No effective removable media controls.
- No single person empowered to ensure IT systems are built and maintained securely throughout their lifecycle.
- Historical data available to all users indefinitely.
Substitute the phrase “cyber weapons” with “productivity” or just “IT systems” in the CIA’s report and you might be reading the post-mortem produced by a security firm hired to help a company recover from a highly damaging data breach.DIVIDED WE STAND, UNITED WE FALL
A key phrase in the CIA’s report references deficiencies in “compartmentalizing” cybersecurity risk. At a high level (not necessarily specific to the CIA), compartmentalizing IT environments involves important concepts such as:
- Segmenting one’s network so that malware infections or breaches in one part of the network can’t spill over into other areas.
- Not allowing multiple users to share administrative-level passwords
- Developing baselines for user and network activity so that deviations from the norm stand out more prominently.
- Continuously inventorying, auditing, logging and monitoring all devices and user accounts connected to the organization’s IT network.
“The Agency for years has developed and operated IT mission systems outside the purview and governance of enterprise IT, citing the need for mission functionality and speed,” the CIA observed. “While often fulfilling a valid purpose, this ‘shadow IT’ exemplifies a broader cultural issue that separates enterprise IT from mission IT, has allowed mission system owners to determine how or if they will police themselves.”
All organizations experience intrusions, security failures and oversights of key weaknesses. In large enough enterprises, these failures likely happen multiple times each day. But by far the biggest factor that allows small intrusions to morph into a full-on data breach is a lack of ability to quickly detect and respond to security incidents.
Also, because employees tend to be the most abundant security weakness in any organization, instituting some kind of continuing security awareness training for all employees is a good idea. Some security experts I know and respect dismiss security awareness programs as a waste of time and money, observing that no matter how much training a company does, there will always be some percentage of users who will click on anything.
That may or may not be accurate, but even if it is, at least the organization then has a much better idea which employees probably need more granular security controls (i.e. more compartmentalizing) to keep them from becoming a serious security liability.
Sen. Wyden’s letter (PDF), first reported on by The Washington Post, is worth reading because it points to a series of continuing security weaknesses at the CIA, many of which have already been addressed by other federal agencies, including multi-factor authentication for domain names and access to classified/sensitive systems, and anti-spam protections like DMARC.
For the past year, a site called Privnotes.com has been impersonating Privnote.com, a legitimate, free service that offers private, encrypted messages which self-destruct automatically after they are read. Until recently, I couldn’t quite work out what Privnotes was up to, but today it became crystal clear: Any messages containing bitcoin addresses will be automatically altered to include a different bitcoin address, as long as the Internet addresses of the sender and receiver of the message are not the same.
Earlier this year, KrebsOnSecurity heard from the owners of Privnote.com, who complained that someone had set up a fake clone of their site that was fooling quite a few regular users of the service.
And it’s not hard to see why: Privnotes.com is confusingly similar in name and appearance to the real thing, and comes up second in Google search results for the term “privnote.” Also, anyone who mistakenly types “privnotes” into Google search may see at the top of the results a misleading paid ad for “Privnote” that actually leads to privnotes.com.
Privnote.com (the legit service) employs technology that encrypts all messages so that even Privnote itself cannot read the contents of the message. And it doesn’t send and receive messages. Creating a message merely generates a link. When that link is clicked or visited, the service warns that the message will be gone forever after it is read.
But according to the owners of Privnote.com, the phishing site Privnotes.com does not fully implement encryption, and can read and/or modify all messages sent by users.
“It is very simple to check that the note in privnoteS is sent unencrypted in plain text,” Privnote.com explained in a February 2020 message, responding to inquiries from KrebsOnSecurity. “Moreover, it doesn’t enforce any kind of decryption key when opening a note and the key after # in the URL can be replaced by arbitrary characters and the note will still open.”
But that’s not the half of it. KrebsOnSecurity has learned that the phishing site Privnotes.com uses some kind of automated script that scours messages for bitcoin addresses, and replaces any bitcoin addresses found with its own bitcoin address. The script apparently only modifies messages if the note is opened from a different Internet address than the one that composed the address.
Here’s an example, using the bitcoin wallet address from bitcoin’s Wikipedia page as an example. The following message was composed at Privnotes.com from a computer with an Internet address in New York, with the message, “please send money to bc1qar0srrr7xfkvy5l643lydnw9re59gtzzwf5mdq thanks”:
When I visited the Privnotes.com link generated by clicking the “create note” button on the above page from a different computer with an Internet address in California, this was the result. As you can see, it lists a different bitcoin address, albeit one with the same first four characters the same.
Several other tests confirmed that the bitcoin modifying script does not seem to change message contents if the sender and receiver’s IP addresses are the same, or if one composes multiple notes with the same bitcoin address in it.
Allison Nixon, the security expert who helped me with this testing, said the script also only seems to replace the first instance of a bitcoin address if it’s repeated within a message, and the site stops replacing a wallet address if it is sent repeatedly over multiple messages.
“And because of the design of the site, the sender won’t be able to view the message because it self destructs after one open, and the type of people using privnote aren’t the type of people who are going to send that bitcoin wallet any other way for verification purposes,” said Nixon, who is chief research officer at Unit 221B. “It’s a pretty smart scam.”
Given that Privnotes.com is phishing bitcoin users, it’s a fair bet the phony service also is siphoning other sensitive data from people who use their site.
“So if there are password dumps in the message, they would be able to read that, too,” Nixon said. “At first, I thought that was their whole angle, just to siphon data. But the bitcoin wallet replacement is probably much closer to the main motivation for running the fake site.”
Even if you never use or plan to use the legitimate encrypted message service Privnote.com, this scam is a great reminder why it pays to be extra careful about using search engines to find sites that you plan to entrust with sensitive data. A far better approach is to bookmark such sites, and rely exclusively on those instead.
Microsoft today released software patches to plug at least 129 security holes in its Windows operating systems and supported software, by some accounts a record number of fixes in one go for the software giant. None of the bugs addressed this month are known to have been exploited or detailed prior to today, but there are a few vulnerabilities that deserve special attention — particularly for enterprises and employees working remotely.
June marks the fourth month in a row that Microsoft has issued fixes to address more than 100 security flaws in its products. Eleven of the updates address problems Microsoft deems “critical,” meaning they could be exploited by malware or malcontents to seize complete, remote control over vulnerable systems without any help from users.
A chief concern among the panoply of patches is a trio of vulnerabilities in the Windows file-sharing technology (a.k.a. Microsoft Server Message Block or “SMB” service). Perhaps most troubling of these (CVE-2020-1301) is a remote code execution bug in SMB capabilities built into Windows 7 and Windows 2008 systems — both operating systems that Microsoft stopped supporting with security updates in January 2020. One mitigating factor with this flaw is that an attacker would need to be already authenticated on the network to exploit it, according to security experts at Tenable.
The SMB fixes follow closely on news that proof-of-concept code was published this week that would allow anyone to exploit a critical SMB flaw Microsoft patched for Windows 10 systems in March (CVE-2020-0796). Unlike this month’s critical SMB bugs, CVE-2020-0796 does not require the attacker to be authenticated to the target’s network. And with countless company employees now working remotely, Windows 10 users who have not yet applied updates from March or later could be dangerously exposed right now.
Microsoft Office and Excel get several updates this month. Two different flaws in Excel (CVE-2020-1225 and CVE-2020-1226) could be used to remotely commandeer a computer running Office just by getting a user to open a booby-trapped document. Another weakness (CVE-2020-1229) in most versions of Office may be exploited to bypass security features in Office simply by previewing a malicious document in the preview pane. This flaw also impacts Office for Mac, although updates are not yet available for that platform.
After months of giving us a welcome break from patching, Adobe has issued an update for its Flash Player program that fixes a single, albeit critical security problem. Adobe says it is not aware of any active exploits against the Flash flaw. Mercifully, Chrome and Firefox both now disable Flash by default, and Chrome and IE/Edge auto-update the program when new security updates are available. Adobe is slated to retire Flash Player later this year. Adobe also released security updates for its Experience Manager and Framemaker products.
Windows 7 users should be aware by now that while a fair number of flaws addressed this month by Microsoft affect Windows 7 systems, this operating system is no longer being supported with security updates (unless you’re an enterprise taking advantage of Microsoft’s paid extended security updates program, which is available to Windows 7 Professional and Windows 7 enterprise users).
Before you update with this month’s patch batch, please make sure you have backed up your system and/or important files. It’s not uncommon for a wonky Windows update to hose one’s system or prevent it from booting properly, and some updates even have known to erase or corrupt files. So do yourself a favor and backup before installing any patches. Windows 10 even has some built-in tools to help you do that, either on a per-file/folder basis or by making a complete and bootable copy of your hard drive all at once.
And if you wish to ensure Windows has been set to pause updating so you can back up your files and/or system before the operating system decides to reboot and install patches on its own schedule, see this guide.
As always, if you experience glitches or problems installing any of these patches this month, please consider leaving a comment about it below; there’s a better-than-even chance other readers have experienced the same and may chime in here with some helpful tips.
In late May, KrebsOnSecurity alerted numerous officials in Florence, Ala. that their information technology systems had been infiltrated by hackers who specialize in deploying ransomware. Nevertheless, on Friday, June 5, the intruders sprang their attack, deploying ransomware and demanding nearly $300,000 worth of bitcoin. City officials now say they plan to pay the ransom demand, in hopes of keeping the personal data of their citizens off of the Internet.
Nestled in the northwest corner of Alabama, Florence is home to roughly 40,000 residents. It is part of a quad-city metropolitan area perhaps best known for the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio that recorded the dulcet tones of many big-name music acts in the 1960s and 70s.
On May 26, acting on a tip from Milwaukee, Wisc.-based cybersecurity firm Hold Security, KrebsOnSecurity contacted the office of Florence’s mayor to alert them that a Windows 10 system in their IT environment had been commandeered by a ransomware gang.
Comparing the information shared by Hold Security dark web specialist Yuliana Bellini with the employee directory on the Florence website indicated the username for the computer that attackers had used to gain a foothold in the network on May 6 belonged to the city’s manager of information systems.
My call was transferred to no fewer than three different people, none of whom seemed eager to act on the information. Eventually, I was routed to the non-emergency line for the Florence police department. When that call went straight to voicemail, I left a message and called the city’s emergency response team.
That last effort prompted a gracious return call the following day from a system administrator for the city, who thanked me for the heads up and said he and his colleagues had isolated the computer and Windows network account Hold Security flagged as hacked.
“I can’t tell you how grateful we are that you helped us dodge this bullet,” the technician said in a voicemail message for this author. “We got everything taken care of now, and some different protocols are in place. Hopefully we won’t have another near scare like we did, and hopefully we won’t have to talk to each other again.”
But on Friday, Florence Mayor Steve Holt confirmed that a cyberattack had shut down the city’s email system. Holt told local news outlets at the time there wasn’t any indication that ransomware was involved.
However, in an interview with KrebsOnSecurity Tuesday, Holt acknowledged the city was being extorted by DoppelPaymer, a ransomware gang with a reputation for negotiating some of the highest extortion payments across dozens of known ransomware families.
Holt said the same gang appears to have simultaneously compromised networks belonging to four other victims within an hour of Florence, including another municipality that he declined to name. Holt said the extortionists initially demanded 39 bitcoin (~USD $378,000), but that an outside security firm hired by the city had negotiated the price down to 30 bitcoin (~USD $291,000).
Like many other cybercrime gangs operating these days, DoppelPaymer will steal reams of data from victims prior to launching the ransomware, and then threaten to publish or sell the data unless a ransom demand is paid.
Holt told KrebsOnSecurity the city can’t afford to see its citizens’ personal and financial data jeopardized by not paying.
“Do they have our stuff? We don’t know, but that’s the roll of the dice,” Holt said.
Steve Price, the Florence IT manager whose Microsoft Windows credentials were stolen on May 6 by a DHL-themed phishing attack and used to further compromise the city’s network, explained that following my notification on May 26 the city immediately took a number of preventative measures to stave off a potential ransomware incident. Price said that when the ransomware hit, they were in the middle of trying to get city leaders to approve funds for a more thorough investigation and remediation.
“We were trying to get another [cybersecurity] response company involved, and that’s what we were trying to get through the city council on Friday when we got hit,” Price said. “We feel like we can build our network back, but we can’t undo things if peoples’ personal information is released.”
Fabian Wosar, chief technology officer at Emsisoft, said organizations need to understand that the only step which guarantees a malware infestation won’t turn into a full-on ransomware attack is completely rebuilding the compromised network — including email systems.
“There is a misguided belief that if you were compromised you can get away with anything but a complete rebuild of the affected networks and infrastructure,” Wosar said, noting that it’s not uncommon for threat actors to maintain control even as a ransomware victim organization is restoring their systems from backups.
“They often even demonstrate that they still ‘own’ the network by publishing screenshots of messages talking about the incident,” Wosar said.
Hold Security founder Alex Holden said Florence’s situation is all too common, and that very often ransomware purveyors are inside a victim’s network for weeks or months before launching their malware.
“We often get glimpses of the bad guys beginning their assaults against computer networks and we do our best to let the victims know about the attack,” Holden said. “Since we can’t see every aspect of the attack we advise victims to conduct a full investigation of the events, based on the evidence collected. But when we deal with sensitive situations like ransomware, timing and precision are critical. If the victim will listen and seek out expert opinions, they have a great chance of successfully stopping the breach before it turns into ransom.”
The co-owners of vDOS, a now-defunct service that for four years helped paying customers launch more than two million distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks that knocked countless Internet users and websites offline, each have been sentenced to six months of community service by an Israeli court.
A judge in Israel handed down the sentences plus fines and probation against Yarden Bidani and Itay Huri, both Israeli citizens arrested in 2016 at age 18 in connection with an FBI investigation into vDOS.
Until it was shuttered in 2016, vDOS was by far the most reliable and powerful DDoS-for-hire or “booter” service on the market, allowing even completely unskilled Internet users to launch crippling assaults capable of knocking most websites offline.
vDOS advertised the ability to launch attacks at up to 50 gigabits of data per second (Gbps) — well more than enough to take out any site that isn’t fortified with expensive anti-DDoS protection services. That’s roughly the equivalent of trying to cram three high-definition Netflix movies down a target’s network pipe all at the same moment.
The Hebrew-language sentencing memorandum (PDF) has redacted the names of the defendants, but there are more than enough clues in the document to ascertain the identities of the accused. For example, it says the two men earned a little more than $600,000 running vDOS, a fact first reported by this site in September 2016 just prior to their arrest, when vDOS was hacked and KrebsOnSecurity obtained a copy of its user database.
In addition, the document says the defendants were initially apprehended on September 8, 2016, arrests which were documented here two days later.
Also, the sentencing mentions the supporting role of a U.S. resident named only as “Jesse.” This likely refers to 23-year-old Jesse Wu, who KrebsOnSecurity noted in October 2016 pseudonymously registered the U.K. shell company used by vDOS, and ran a tiny domain name registrar called NameCentral that vDOS and many other booter services employed.
Israeli prosecutors say Wu also set up their payment infrastructure, and received 15 percent of vDOS’s total revenue for his trouble. NameCentral no longer appears to be in business, and Wu could not be reached for comment.
Although it is clear Bidani and Huri are defendants in this case, it is less clear which is referenced as Defendant #1 or Defendant #2. Both were convicted of “corrupting/disturbing a computer or computer material,” charges that the judge said had little precedent in Israeli courts, noting that “cases of this kind have not been discussed in court so far.” Defendant #1 also was convicted of sharing nude pictures of a 14 year old girl.
vDOS also sold API access to their backend attack infrastructure to other booter services to further monetize their excess firepower, including Vstress, Ustress, and PoodleStresser and LizardStresser.
Both defendants received the lowest possible sentence (the maximum was two years in prison) — six months of community service under the watch of the Israeli prison service — mainly because the accused were minors during the bulk of their offenses. The judge also imposed small fines on each, noting that more than $175,000 dollars worth of profits had already been seized from their booter business.
The judge observed that while Defendant #2 had shown remorse for his crimes and an understanding of how his actions affected others — even sobbing throughout one court proceeding — Defendant #1 failed to participate in the therapy sessions previously ordered by the court, and that he has “a clear and daunting boundary for recurrence of further offenses in the future.”
Boaz Dolev, CEO of ClearSky Cyber Security, said he’s disappointed in the lightness of the sentences given how much damage the young men caused.
“I think that such an operation that caused big damage to so many companies should have been dealt differently by the Israeli justice system,” Dolev said. “The fact that they were under 18 when committing their crimes saved them from much harder sentences.”
While DDoS attacks typically target a single website or Internet host, they often result in widespread collateral Internet disruption. Less than two weeks after the 2016 arrest of Bidani and Huri, KrebsOnSecurity.com suffered a three-day outage as a result of a record 620 Gbps attack that was alleged to have been purchased in retribution for my reporting on vDOS. That attack caused stability issues for other companies using the same DDoS protection firm my site enjoyed at the time, so much so that the provider terminated my service with them shortly thereafter.
To say that vDOS was responsible for a majority of the DDoS attacks clogging up the Internet between 2012 and 2016 would be an understatement. The various subscription packages for the service were sold based in part on how many seconds the denial-of-service attack would last. And in just four months between April and July 2016, vDOS was responsible for launching more than 277 million seconds of attack time, or approximately 8.81 years worth of attack traffic.
It seems likely vDOS was responsible for several decades worth of DDoS years, but it’s impossible to say for sure because vDOS’s owners routinely wiped attack data from their servers.
Prosecutors in the United States and United Kingdom have in recent years sought tough sentences for those convicted of running booter services. While a number of current charges against alleged offenders have not yet been fully adjudicated, only a handful of defendants in these cases have seen real jail time.
The two men responsible for creating and unleashing the Mirai botnet (the same duo responsible for building the massive crime machine that knocked my site offline in 2016) each avoided jail time thanks to their considerable cooperation with the FBI.
Likewise, Pennsylvania resident David Bukoski recently got five years probation and six months of “community confinement” after pleading guilty to running the Quantum Stresser booter service. Lizard Squad member and PoodleStresser operator Zachary Buchta was sentenced to three months in prison and ordered to pay $350,000 in restitution for his role in running various booter services.
On the other end of the spectrum, last November 21-year-old Illinois resident Sergiy Usatyuk was sentenced to 13 months in jail for running multiple booter services that launched millions of attacks over several years. And a 20-year-old U.K. resident in 2017 got two years in prison for operating the Titanium Stresser service.
For their part, authorities in the U.K. have sought to discourage would-be customers of these booter services by purchasing Google ads warning that such services are illegal. The goal is to steer customers away from committing further offenses that could land them in jail, and toward more productive uses of their skills and/or curiosity about cybersecurity.