alex holden

FBI, DHS, HHS Warn of Imminent, Credible Ransomware Threat Against U.S. Hospitals

On Monday, Oct. 26, KrebsOnSecurity began following up on a tip from a reliable source that an aggressive Russian cybercriminal gang known for deploying ransomware was preparing to disrupt information technology systems at hundreds of hospitals, clinics and medical care facilities across the United States. Today, officials from the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security hastily assembled a conference call with healthcare industry executives warning about an “imminent cybercrime threat to U.S. hospitals and healthcare providers.”

The agencies on the conference call, which included the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), warned participants about “credible information of an increased and imminent cybercrime threat to US hospitals and healthcare providers.”

The agencies said they were sharing the information “to provide warning to healthcare providers to ensure that they take timely and reasonable precautions to protect their networks from these threats.”

The warning came less than two days after this author received a tip from Alex Holden, founder of Milwaukee-based cyber intelligence firm Hold Security. Holden said he saw online communications this week between cybercriminals affiliated with a Russian-speaking ransomware group known as Ryuk in which group members discussed plans to deploy ransomware at more than 400 healthcare facilities in the U.S.

One participant on the government conference call today said the agencies offered few concrete details of how healthcare organizations might better protect themselves against this threat actor or purported malware campaign.

“They didn’t share any IoCs [indicators of compromise], so it’s just been ‘patch your systems and report anything suspicious’,” said a healthcare industry veteran who sat in on the discussion.

However, others on the call said IoCs may be of little help for hospitals that have already been infiltrated by Ryuk. That’s because the malware infrastructure used by the Ryuk gang is often unique to each victim, including everything from the Microsoft Windows executable files that get dropped on the infected hosts to the so-called “command and control” servers used to transmit data between and among compromised systems.

Nevertheless, cybersecurity incident response firm Mandiant today released a list of domains and Internet addresses used by Ryuk in previous attacks throughout 2020 and up to the present day. Mandiant refers to the group by the threat actor classification “UNC1878,” and aired a webcast today detailing some of Ryuk’s latest exploitation tactics.

Charles Carmakal, senior vice president for Mandiant, told Reuters that UNC1878 is one of most brazen, heartless, and disruptive threat actors he’s observed over the course of his career.

“Multiple hospitals have already been significantly impacted by Ryuk ransomware and their networks have been taken offline,” Carmakal said.

One health industry veteran who participated in the call today and who spoke with KrebsOnSecurity on condition of anonymity said if there truly are hundreds of medical facilities at imminent risk here, that would seem to go beyond the scope of any one hospital group and may implicate some kind of electronic health record provider that integrates with many care facilities.

So far, however, nothing like hundreds of facilities have publicly reported ransomware incidents. But there have been a handful of hospitals dealing with ransomware attacks in the past few days.

Becker’s Hospital Review reported today that a ransomware attack hit Klamath Falls, Ore.-based Sky Lakes Medical Center’s computer systems.

WWNY’s Channel 7 News in New York reported yesterday that a Ryuk ransomware attack on St. Lawrence Health System led to computer infections at Caton-Potsdam, Messena and Gouverneur hospitals.

SWNewsMedia.com on Monday reported on “unidentified network activity” that caused disruption to certain operations at Ridgeview Medical Center in Waconia, Minn. SWNews says Ridgeview’s system includes Chaska’s Two Twelve Medical Center, three hospitals, clinics and other emergency and long-term care sites around the metro area.

NBC5 reports The University of Vermont Health Network is dealing with a “significant and ongoing system-wide network issue” that could be a malicious cyber attack.

This is a developing story. Stay tuned for further updates.

Update, 10:11 p.m. ET: The FBI, DHS and HHS just jointly issued an alert about this, available here.

Report: U.S. Cyber Command Behind Trickbot Tricks

A week ago, KrebsOnSecurity broke the news that someone was attempting to disrupt the Trickbot botnet, a malware crime machine that has infected millions of computers and is often used to spread ransomware. A new report Friday says the coordinated attack was part of an operation carried out by the U.S. military’s Cyber Command.

Image: Shutterstock.

On October 2, KrebsOnSecurity reported that twice in the preceding ten days, an unknown entity that had inside access to the Trickbot botnet sent all infected systems a command telling them to disconnect themselves from the Internet servers the Trickbot overlords used to control compromised Microsoft Windows computers.

On top of that, someone had stuffed millions of bogus records about new victims into the Trickbot database — apparently to confuse or stymie the botnet’s operators.

In a story published Oct. 9, The Washington Post reported that four U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said the Trickbot disruption was the work of U.S. Cyber Command, a branch of the Department of Defense headed by the director of the National Security Agency (NSA).

The Post report suggested the action was a bid to prevent Trickbot from being used to somehow interfere with the upcoming presidential election, noting that Cyber Command was instrumental in disrupting the Internet access of Russian online troll farms during the 2018 midterm elections.

The Post said U.S. officials recognized their operation would not permanently dismantle Trickbot, describing it rather as “one way to distract them for at least a while as they seek to restore their operations.”

Alex Holden, chief information security officer and president of Milwaukee-based Hold Security, has been monitoring Trickbot activity before and after the 10-day operation. Holden said while the attack on Trickbot appears to have cut its operators off from a large number of victim computers, the bad guys still have passwords, financial data and reams of other sensitive information stolen from more than 2.7 million systems around the world.

Holden said the Trickbot operators have begun rebuilding their botnet, and continue to engage in deploying ransomware at new targets.

“They are running normally and their ransomware operations are pretty much back in full swing,” Holden said. “They are not slowing down because they still have a great deal of stolen data.”

Holden added that since news of the disruption first broke a week ago, the Russian-speaking cybercriminals behind Trickbot have been discussing how to recoup their losses, and have been toying with the idea of massively increasing the amount of money demanded from future ransomware victims.

“There is a conversation happening in the back channels,” Holden said. “Normally, they will ask for [a ransom amount] that is something like 10 percent of the victim company’s annual revenues. Now, some of the guys involved are talking about increasing that to 100 percent or 150 percent.”

Attacks Aimed at Disrupting the Trickbot Botnet

Over the past 10 days, someone has been launching a series of coordinated attacks designed to disrupt Trickbot, an enormous collection of more than two million malware-infected Windows PCs that are constantly being harvested for financial data and are often used as the entry point for deploying ransomware within compromised organizations.

A text snippet from one of the bogus Trickbot configuration updates. Source: Intel 471

On Sept. 22, someone pushed out a new configuration file to Windows computers currently infected with Trickbot. The crooks running the Trickbot botnet typically use these config files to pass new instructions to their fleet of infected PCs, such as the Internet address where hacked systems should download new updates to the malware.

But the new configuration file pushed on Sept. 22 told all systems infected with Trickbot that their new malware control server had the address 127.0.0.1, which is a “localhost” address that is not reachable over the public Internet, according to an analysis by cyber intelligence firm Intel 471.

It’s not known how many Trickbot-infected systems received the phony update, but it seems clear this wasn’t just a mistake by Trickbot’s overlords. Intel 471 found that it happened yet again on Oct. 1, suggesting someone with access to the inner workings of the botnet was trying to disrupt its operations.

“Shortly after the bogus configs were pushed out, all Trickbot controllers stopped responding correctly to bot requests,” Intel 471 wrote in a note to its customers. “This possibly means central Trickbot controller infrastructure was disrupted. The close timing of both events suggested an intentional disruption of Trickbot botnet operations.”

Intel 471 CEO Mark Arena said it’s anyone’s guess at this point who is responsible.

“Obviously, someone is trying to attack Trickbot,” Arena said. “It could be someone in the security research community, a government, a disgruntled insider, or a rival cybercrime group. We just don’t know at this point.

Arena said it’s unclear how successful these bogus configuration file updates will be given that the Trickbot authors built a fail-safe recovery system into their malware. Specifically, Trickbot has a backup control mechanism: A domain name registered on EmerDNS, a decentralized domain name system.

“This domain should still be in control of the Trickbot operators and could potentially be used to recover bots,” Intel 471 wrote.

But whoever is screwing with the Trickbot purveyors appears to have adopted a multi-pronged approach: Around the same time as the second bogus configuration file update was pushed on Oct. 1, someone stuffed the control networks that the Trickbot operators use to keep track of data on infected systems with millions of new records.

Alex Holden is chief technology officer and founder of Hold Security, a Milwaukee-based cyber intelligence firm that helps recover stolen data. Holden said at the end of September Trickbot held passwords and financial data stolen from more than 2.7 million Windows PCs.

By October 1, Holden said, that number had magically grown to more than seven million.

“Someone is flooding the Trickbot system with fake data,” Holden said. “Whoever is doing this is generating records that include machine names indicating these are infected systems in a broad range of organizations, including the Department of Defense, U.S. Bank, JP Morgan Chase, PNC and Citigroup, to name a few.”

Holden said the flood of new, apparently bogus, records appears to be an attempt by someone to dilute the Trickbot database and confuse or stymie the Trickbot operators. But so far, Holden said, the impact has been mainly to annoy and aggravate the criminals in charge of Trickbot.

“Our monitoring found at least one statement from one of the ransomware groups that relies on Trickbot saying this pisses them off, and they’re going to double the ransom they’re asking for from a victim,” Holden said. “We haven’t been able to confirm whether they actually followed through with that, but these attacks are definitely interfering with their business.”

Intel 471’s Arena said this could be part of an ongoing campaign to dismantle or wrest control over the Trickbot botnet. Such an effort would hardly be unprecedented. In 2014, for example, U.S. and international law enforcement agencies teamed up with multiple security firms and private researchers to commandeer the Gameover Zeus Botnet, a particularly aggressive and sophisticated malware strain that had enslaved up to 1 million Windows PCs globally.

Trickbot would be an attractive target for such a takeover effort because it is widely viewed as a platform used to find potential ransomware victims. Intel 471 describes Trickbot as “a malware-as-a-service platform that caters to a relatively small number of top-tier cybercriminals.”

One of the top ransomware gangs in operation today — which deploys ransomware strains known variously as “Ryuk” and “Conti,” is known to be closely associated with Trickbot infections. Both ransomware families have been used in some of the most damaging and costly malware incidents to date.

The latest Ryuk victim is Universal Health Services (UHS), a Fortune 500 hospital and healthcare services provider that operates more than 400 facilities in the U.S. and U.K.

On Sunday, Sept. 27, UHS shut down its computer systems at healthcare facilities across the United States in a bid to stop the spread of the malware. The disruption has reportedly caused the affected hospitals to redirect ambulances and relocate patients in need of surgery to other nearby hospitals.

Business ID Theft Soars Amid COVID Closures

Identity thieves who specialize in running up unauthorized lines of credit in the names of small businesses are having a field day with all of the closures and economic uncertainty wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, KrebsOnSecurity has learned. This story is about the victims of a particularly aggressive business ID theft ring that’s spent years targeting small businesses across the country and is now pivoting toward using that access for pandemic assistance loans and unemployment benefits.

Most consumers are likely aware of the threat from identity theft, which occurs when crooks apply for new lines of credit in your name. But the same crime can be far more costly and damaging when thieves target small businesses. Unfortunately, far too many entrepreneurs are simply unaware of the threat or don’t know how to be watchful for it.

What’s more, with so many small enterprises going out of business or sitting dormant during the COVID-19 pandemic, organized fraud rings have an unusually rich pool of targets to choose from.

Short Hills, N.J.-based Dun & Bradstreet [NYSE:DNB] is a data analytics company that acts as a kind of de facto credit bureau for companies: When a business owner wants to open a new line of credit, creditors typically check with Dun & Bradstreet to gauge the business’s history and trustworthiness.

In 2019, Dun & Bradstreet saw more than a 100 percent increase in business identity theft. For 2020, the company estimates an overall 258 percent spike in the crime. Dun & Bradstreet said that so far this year it has received over 4,700 tips and leads where business identity theft or malfeasance are suspected.

“The ferocity of cyber criminals to take advantage of COVID-19 uncertainties by preying on small businesses is disturbing,” said Andrew LaMarca, who leads the global high-risk and fraud team at Dun & Bradstreet.

For the past several months, Milwaukee, Wisc. based cyber intelligence firm Hold Security has been monitoring the communications between and among a businesses ID theft gang apparently operating in Georgia and Florida but targeting businesses throughout the United States. That surveillance has helped to paint a detailed picture of how business ID thieves operate, as well as the tricks they use to gain credit in a company’s name.

Hold Security founder Alex Holden said the group appears to target both active and dormant or inactive small businesses. The gang typically will start by looking up the business ownership records at the Secretary of State website that corresponds to the company’s state of incorporation. From there, they identify the officers and owners of the company, acquire their Social Security and Tax ID numbers from the dark web and other sources online.

To prove ownership over the hijacked firms, they hire low-wage image editors online to help fabricate and/or modify a number of official documents tied to the business — including tax records and utility bills.

The scammers frequently then file phony documents with the Secretary of State’s office in the name(s) of the business owners, but include a mailing address that they control. They also create email addresses and domain names that mimic the names of the owners and the company to make future credit applications appear more legitimate, and submit the listings to business search websites, such as yellowpages.com.

For both dormant and existing businesses, the fraudsters attempt to create or modify the target company’s accounts at Dun & Bradstreet. In some cases, the scammers create dashboard accounts in the business’s names at Dun & Bradstreet’s credit builder portal; in others, the bad guys have actually hacked existing business accounts at DNB, requesting a new DUNS numbers for the business (a DUNS number is a unique, nine-digit identifier for businesses).

Finally, after the bogus profiles are approved by Dun & Bradstreet, the gang waits a few weeks or months and then starts applying for new lines of credit in the target business’s name at stores like Home Depot, Office Depot and Staples. Then they go on a buying spree with the cards issued by those stores.

Usually, the first indication a victim has that they’ve been targeted is when the debt collection companies start calling.

“They are using mostly small companies that are still active businesses but currently not operating because of COVID-19,” Holden said. “With this gang, we see four or five people working together. The team leader manages the work between people. One person seems to be in charge of getting stolen cards from the dark web to pay for the reactivation of businesses through the secretary of state sites. Another team member works on revising the business documents and registering them on various sites. The others are busy looking for specific businesses they want to revive.”

Holden said the gang appears to find success in getting new lines of credit with about 20 percent of the businesses they target.

“One’s personal credit is nothing compared to the ability of corporations to borrow money,” he said. “That’s bad because while the credit system may be flawed for individuals, it’s an even worse situation on average when we’re talking about businesses.”

Holden said over the past few months his firm has seen communications between the gang’s members indicating they have temporarily shifted more of their energy and resources to defrauding states and the federal government by filing unemployment insurance claims and apply for pandemic assistance loans with the Small Business Administration.

“It makes sense, because they’ve already got control over all these dormant businesses,” he said. “So they’re now busy trying to get unemployment payments and SBA loans in the names of these companies and their employees.”

PHANTOM OFFICES

Hold Security shared data intercepted from the gang that listed the personal and financial details of dozens of companies targeted for ID theft, including Dun & Bradstreet logins the crooks had created for the hijacked businesses. Dun & Bradstreet declined to comment on the matter, other than to say it was working with federal and state authorities to alert affected businesses and state regulators.

Among those targeted was Environmental Safety Consultants Inc. (ESC), a 37-year-old environmental engineering firm based in Bradenton, Fla. ESC owner Scott Russell estimates his company was initially targeted nearly two years ago, and that he first became aware something wasn’t right when he recently began getting calls from Home Depot’s corporate offices inquiring about the company’s delinquent account.

But Russell said he didn’t quite grasp the enormity of the situation until last year, when he was contacted by the manager of a virtual office space across town who told him about a suspiciously large number of deliveries at an office space that was rented out in his name.

Russell had never rented that particular office. Rather, the thieves had done it for him, using his name and the name of his business. The office manager said the deliveries came virtually non-stop, even though there was apparently no business operating within the rented premises. And in each case, shortly after the shipments arrived someone would show up and cart them away.

“She said we don’t think it’s you,” he recalled. “Turns out, they had paid for a lease in my name with someone else’s credit card. She shared with me a copy of the lease, which included a fraudulent ID and even a vehicle insurance card for a Land Cruiser we got rid of like 15 years ago. The application listed our home address with me and some woman who was not my wife’s name.”

The crates and boxes being delivered to his erstwhile office space were mostly computers and other high-priced items ordered from 10 different Office Depot credit cards that also were not in his name.

“The total value of the electronic equipment that was bought and delivered there was something like $75,000,” Russell said, noting that it took countless hours and phone calls with Office Depot to make it clear they would no longer accept shipments addressed to him or his company. “It was quite spine-tingling to see someone penned a lease in the name of my business and personal identity.”

Even though the virtual office manager had the presence of mind to take photocopies of the driver’s licenses presented by the people arriving to pick up the fraudulent shipments, the local police seemed largely uninterested in pursuing the case, Russell said.

“I went to the local county sheriff’s office and showed them all the documentation I had and the guy just yawned and said he’d get right on it,” he recalled. “The place where the office space was rented was in another county, and the detective I spoke to there about it was interested, but he could never get anyone from my county to follow up.”

RECYCLING VICTIMS

Russell said he believes the fraudsters initially took out new lines of credit in his company’s name and then used those to defraud others in a similar way. One of those victims is another victim on the gang’s target list obtained by Hold Security — Mary McMahan, owner of Fan Experiences, an event management company in Winter Park, Fla.

McMahan also had stolen goods from Office Depot and other stores purchased in her company’s name and delivered to the same office space rented in Russell’s name. McMahan said she and her businesses have suffered hundreds of thousands of dollars in fraud, and spent nearly as much in legal fees fending off collections firms and restoring her company’s credit.

McMahan said she first began noticing trouble almost four years ago, when someone started taking out new credit cards in her company’s name. At the same time, her business was used to open a new lease on a virtual office space in Florida that also began receiving packages tied to other companies victimized by business ID theft.

“About four years back, they hit my credit hard for a year, getting all these new lines of credit at Home Depot, Office Depot, Office Max, you name it,” she said. “Then they came back again two years ago and hit it hard for another year. They even went to the [Florida Department of Motor Vehicles] to get a driver’s license in my name.”

McMahan said the thieves somehow hacked her DNB account, and then began adding new officers and locations for her business listing.

“They changed the email and mailing address, and even went on Yelp and Google and did the same,” she said.

McMahan said she’s since locked down her personal and business credit to the point where even she would have a tough time getting a new line of credit or mortgage if she tried.

“There’s no way they can even utilize me anymore because there’s so many marks on my credit stating that it’s been stolen” she said. “These guys are relentless, and they recycle victims to defraud others until they figure out they can’t recycle them anymore.”

SAY…THAT’S A NICE CREDIT PROFILE YOU GOT THERE…

McMahan says she, too, has filed multiple reports about the crimes with local police, but has so far seen little evidence that anyone is interested in following up on the matter. For now, she is paying Dun and Bradstreet more than a $100 a month to monitor her business credit profile.

Dun & Bradstreet does offer a free version of credit monitoring called Credit Signal that lets business owners check their business credit scores and any inquiries made in the previous 14 days up to four times a year. However, those looking for more frequent checks or additional information about specific credit inquiries beyond 14 days are steered toward DNB’s subscription-based services.

Eva Velasquez, president of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a California-based nonprofit that assists ID theft victims, said she finds that troubling.

“When we look at these institutions that are necessary for us to operate and function in society and they start to charge us a fee for a service to fix a problem they helped create through their infrastructure, that’s just unconscionable,” Velasquez said. “We need to take a hard look at the infrastructures that businesses are beholden to and make sure the risk minimization protections they’re entitled to are not fee-based — particularly if it’s a problem created by the very infrastructure of the system.”

Velasquez said it’s unfortunate that small business owners don’t have the same protections afforded to consumers. For example, only recently did the three major consumer reporting bureaus allow all U.S. residents to place a freeze on their credit files for free.

“We’ve done a good job in educating the public that anyone can be victim of identity theft, and in compelling our infrastructure to provide robust consumer protection and risk minimization processes that are more uniform,” she said. “It’s still not good by any means, but it’s definitely better for consumers than it is for businesses. We currently put all the responsibility on the small business owner, and very little on the infrastructure and processes that should be designed to protect them but aren’t doing a great job, frankly.”

Rather, the onus continues to be on the business owner to periodically check with DNB and state agencies to monitor for any signs of unauthorized changes. Worse still, too many private and public organizations still don’t do a good enough job protecting employee identification and tax ID numbers that are so often abused in business identity theft, Velasquez said.

“You can put alerts and other protections in place but the problem is you have to go on a department by department and case by case basis,” she said. “The place to begin is your secretary of state’s office or wherever you file your documents to operate your business.

For its part, Dun & Bradstreet recently published a blog post outlining recommendations for businesses to ward off identity thieves. DNB says anyone who suspects fraudulent activity on their account should contact its support team.

Florence, Ala. Hit By Ransomware 12 Days After Being Alerted by KrebsOnSecurity

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.

Image: Florenceal.org

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.

The average ransomware payment by ransomware strain. Source: Chainalysis.

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.”

A DoppelPaymer ransom note. Image: Crowdstrike.

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.”

Ukraine Nabs Suspect in 773M Password ‘Megabreach’

In January 2019, dozens of media outlets raised the alarm about a new “megabreach” involving the release of some 773 million stolen usernames and passwords that was breathlessly labeled “the largest collection of stolen data in history.” A subsequent review by KrebsOnSecurity quickly determined the data was years old and merely a compilation of credentials pilfered from mostly public data breaches. Earlier today, authorities in Ukraine said they’d apprehended a suspect in the case.

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) on Tuesday announced the detention of a hacker known as Sanix (a.k.a. “Sanixer“) from the Ivano-Frankivsk region of the country. The SBU said they found on Sanix’s computer records showing he sold databases with “logins and passwords to e-mail boxes, PIN codes for bank cards, e-wallets of cryptocurrencies, PayPal accounts, and information about computers hacked for further use in botnets and for organizing distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks.”

Items SBU authorities seized after raiding Sanix’s residence. Image: SBU.

Sanix became famous last year for posting to hacker forums that he was selling the 87GB password dump, labeled “Collection #1.” Shortly after his sale was first detailed by Troy Hunt, who operates the HaveIBeenPwned breach notification service, KrebsOnSecurity contacted Sanix to find out what all the fuss was about. From that story:

“Sanixer said Collection#1 consists of data pulled from a huge number of hacked sites, and was not exactly his ‘freshest’ offering. Rather, he sort of steered me away from that archive, suggesting that — unlike most of his other wares — Collection #1 was at least 2-3 years old. His other password packages, which he said are not all pictured in the above screen shot and total more than 4 terabytes in size, are less than a year old, Sanixer explained.”

Alex Holden, chief technology officer and founder of Milwaukee-based Hold Security, said Sanixer’s claim to infamy was simply for disclosing the Collection #1 data, which was just one of many credential dumps amalgamated by other cyber criminals.

“Today, it is even a more common occurrence to see mixing new and old breached credentials,” Holden said. “In fact, large aggregations of stolen credentials have been around since 2013-2014. Even the original attempt to sell the Yahoo breach data was a large mix of several previous unrelated breaches. Collection #1 was one of many credentials collections output by various cyber criminals gangs.”

Sanix was far from a criminal mastermind, and left a long trail of clues that made it almost child’s play to trace his hacker aliases to the real-life identity of a young man in Burshtyn, a city located in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast in western Ukraine.

Still, perhaps Ukraine’s SBU detained Sanix for other reasons in addition to his peddling of Collection 1. According to cyber intelligence firm Intel 471, Sanix has stayed fairly busy selling credentials that would allow customers to remotely access hacked resources at several large organizations. For example, as recently as earlier this month, Intel 471 spotted Sanix selling access to nearly four dozen universities worldwide, and to a compromised VPN account for the government of San Bernadino, Calif.

KrebsOnSecurity is covering Sanix’s detention mainly to close the loop on an incident that received an incredible amount of international attention. But it’s also another excuse to remind readers about the importance of good password hygiene. A core reason so many accounts get compromised is that far too many people have the nasty habit(s) of choosing poor passwords, re-using passwords and email addresses across multiple sites, and not taking advantage of multi-factor authentication options when available.

By far the most important passwords are those protecting our email inbox(es). That’s because in nearly all cases, the person who is in control of that email address can reset the password of any services or accounts tied to that email address – merely by requesting a password reset link via email. For more on this dynamic, please see The Value of a Hacked Email Account.

Your email account may be worth far more than you imagine.

And instead of thinking about passwords, consider using unique, lengthy passphrases — collections of words in an order you can remember — when a site allows it. In general, a long, unique passphrase takes far more effort to crack than a short, complex one. Unfortunately, many sites do not let users choose passwords or passphrases that exceed a small number of characters, or they will otherwise allow long passphrases but ignore anything entered after the character limit is reached.

If you are the type of person who likes to re-use passwords, then you definitely need to be using a password manager, which helps you pick and remember strong and unique passwords/passphrases and essentially lets you use the same strong master password/passphrase across all Web sites.

Finally, if you haven’t done so lately, mosey on over to twofactorauth.org and see if you are taking full advantage of the strongest available multi-factor authentication option at sites you trust with your data. The beauty of multi-factor is that even if thieves manage to guess or steal your password just because they hacked some Web site, that password will be useless to them unless they can also compromise that second factor — be it your mobile device, phone number, or security key. Not saying these additional security methods aren’t also vulnerable to compromise (they absolutely are), but they’re definitely better than just using a password.

How Cybercriminals are Weathering COVID-19

In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a boon to cybercriminals: With unprecedented numbers of people working from home and anxious for news about the virus outbreak, it’s hard to imagine a more target-rich environment for phishers, scammers and malware purveyors. In addition, many crooks are finding the outbreak has helped them better market their cybercriminal wares and services. But it’s not all good news: The Coronavirus also has driven up costs and disrupted key supply lines for many cybercriminals. Here’s a look at how they’re adjusting to these new realities.

FUELED BY MULES

One of the more common and perennial cybercriminal schemes is “reshipping fraud,” wherein crooks buy pricey consumer goods online using stolen credit card data and then enlist others to help them collect or resell the merchandise.

Most online retailers years ago stopped shipping to regions of the world most frequently associated with credit card fraud, including Eastern Europe, North Africa, and Russia. These restrictions have created a burgeoning underground market for reshipping scams, which rely on willing or unwitting residents in the United States and Europe — derisively referred to as “reshipping mules” — to receive and relay high-dollar stolen goods to crooks living in the embargoed areas.

A screen shot from a user account at “Snowden,” a long-running reshipping mule service.

But apparently a number of criminal reshipping services are reporting difficulties due to the increased wait time when calling FedEx or UPS (to divert carded goods that merchants end up shipping to the cardholder’s address instead of to the mule’s). In response, these operations are raising their prices and warning of longer shipping times, which in turn could hamper the activities of other actors who depend on those services.

That’s according to Intel 471, a cyber intelligence company that closely monitors hundreds of online crime forums. In a report published today, the company said since late March 2020 it has observed several crooks complaining about COVID-19 interfering with the daily activities of their various money mules (people hired to help launder the proceeds of cybercrime).

“One Russian-speaking actor running a fraud network complained about their subordinates (“money mules”) in Italy, Spain and other countries being unable to withdraw funds, since they currently were afraid to leave their homes,” Intel 471 observed. “Also some actors have reported that banks’ customer-support lines are being overloaded, making it difficult for fraudsters to call them for social-engineering activities (such as changing account ownership, raising withdrawal limits, etc).”

Still, every dark cloud has a silver lining: Intel 471 noted many cybercriminals appear optimistic that the impending global economic recession (and resultant unemployment) “will make it easier to recruit low-level accomplices such as money mules.”

Alex Holden, founder and CTO of Hold Security, agreed. He said while the Coronavirus has forced reshipping operators to make painful shifts in several parts of their business, the overall market for available mules has never looked brighter.

“Reshipping is way up right now, but there are some complications,” he said.

For example, reshipping scams have over the years become easier for both reshipping mule operators and the mules themselves. Many reshipping mules are understandably concerned about receiving stolen goods at their home and risking a visit from the local police. But increasingly, mules have been instructed to retrieve carded items from third-party locations.

“The mules don’t have to receive stolen goods directly at home anymore,” Holden said. “They can pick them up at Walgreens, Hotel lobbies, etc. There are a ton of reshipment tricks out there.”

But many of those tricks got broken with the emergence of COVID-19 and social distancing norms. In response, more mule recruiters are asking their hires to do things like reselling goods shipped to their homes on platforms like eBay and Amazon.

“Reshipping definitely has become more complicated,” Holden said. “Not every mule will run 10 times a day to the post office, and some will let the goods sit by the mailbox for days. But on the whole, mules are more compliant these days.”

GIVE AND TAKE

KrebsOnSecurity recently came to a similar conclusion: Last month’s story, “Coronavirus Widens the Money Mule Pool,” looked at one money mule operation that had ensnared dozens of mules with phony job offers in a very short period of time. Incidentally, the fake charity behind that scheme — which promised to raise money for Coronavirus victims — has since closed up shop and apparently re-branded itself as the Tessaris Foundation.

Charitable cybercriminal endeavors were the subject of a report released this week by cyber intel firm Digital Shadows, which looked at various ways computer crooks are promoting themselves and their hacking services using COVID-19 themed discounts and giveaways.

Like many commercials on television these days, such offers obliquely or directly reference the economic hardships wrought by the virus outbreak as a way of connecting on an emotional level with potential customers.

“The illusion of philanthropy recedes further when you consider the benefits to the threat actors giving away goods and services,” the report notes. “These donors receive a massive boost to their reputation on the forum. In the future, they may be perceived as individuals willing to contribute to forum life, and the giveaways help establish a track record of credibility.”

Brian’s Club — one of the underground’s largest bazaars for selling stolen credit card data and one that has misappropriated this author’s likeness and name in its advertising — recently began offering “pandemic support” in the form of discounts for its most loyal customers.

It stands to reason that the virus outbreak might depress cybercriminal demand for “dumps,” or stolen account data that can be used to create physical counterfeit credit cards. After all, dumps are mainly used to buy high-priced items from electronics stores and other outlets that may not even be open now thanks to the widespread closures from the pandemic.

If that were the case, we’d also expect to see dumps prices fall significantly across the cybercrime economy. But so far, those price changes simply haven’t materialized, says Gemini Advisory, a New York based company that monitors the sale of stolen credit card data across dozens of stores in the cybercrime underground.

Stas Alforov, Gemini’s director of research and development, said there’s been no notable dramatic changes in pricing for both dumps and card data stolen from online merchants (a.k.a. “CVVs”) — even though many cybercrime groups appear to be massively shifting their operations toward targeting online merchants and their customers.

“Usually, the huge spikes upward or downward during a short period is reflected by a large addition of cheap records that drive the median price change,” Alforov said, referring to the small and temporary price deviations depicted in the graph above.

Intel 471 said it came to a similar conclusion.

“You might have thought carding activity, to include support aspects such as checker services, would decrease due to both the global lockdown and threat actors being infected with COVID-19,” the company said. “We’ve even seen some actors suggest as much across some shops, but the reality is there have been no observations of major changes.”

CONSCIENCE VS. COMMERCE

Interestingly, the Coronavirus appears to have prompted discussion on a topic that seldom comes up in cybercrime communities — i.e., the moral and ethical ramifications of their work. Specifically, there seems to be much talk these days about the potential karmic consequences of cashing in on the misery wrought by a global pandemic.

For example, Digital Shadows said some have started to question the morality of targeting healthcare providers, or collecting funds in the name of Coronavirus causes and then pocketing the money.

“One post on the gated Russian-language cybercriminal forum Korovka laid bare the question of threat actors’ moral obligation,” the company wrote. “A user initiated a thread to canvass opinion on the feasibility of faking a charitable cause and collecting donations. They added that while they recognized that such a plan was ‘cruel,’ they found themselves in an ‘extremely difficult financial situation.’ Responses to the proposal were mixed, with one forum user calling the plan ‘amoral,’ and another pointing out that cybercrime is inherently an immoral affair.”

Coronavirus Widens the Money Mule Pool

With many people being laid off or working from home thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic, cybercrooks are almost certain to have more than their usual share of recruitable “money mules” — people who get roped into money laundering schemes under the pretense of a work-at-home job offer. Here’s the story of one upstart mule factory that spoofs a major nonprofit and tells new employees they’ll be collecting and transmitting donations for an international “Coronavirus Relief Fund.”

On the surface, the Web site for the Vasty Health Care Foundation certainly looks legitimate. It includes various sections on funding relief efforts around the globe, explaining that it “connects nonprofits, donors, and companies in nearly every country around the world.” The site says it’s a nonprofit with offices based in Nebraska and Quebec, Canada.

Vasty is a phony charity that pretends to raise money for Coronavirus victims but instead hires people to help launder stolen funds. This and the rest of the content at Vasty’s site was lifted from GlobalGiving, a legitimate charity that is helping people affected by the pandemic.

The “Vasty Health Care Foundation” is one of several fraudulent Web sites that recruit money mules in the name of helping Coronavirus victims. The content on Vasty’s site was lifted almost entirely from globalgiving.org, a legitimate charity that actually is trying to help people affected by the pandemic.

“We have been contacted by job seekers asking if we are related to some of these job opportunities they’ve been finding on Indeed.com and Monster.com,” said Kevin Conroy, chief product officer at GlobalGiving. “And we always tell them no that’s not from us, and not to cash any checks someone may be giving them in relation to those offers.”

The Vasty domain — vastyhealthcarefoundation[.]com — was registered just weeks ago, although the site claims its organization has been around for years.

The crooks behind this scheme also seem to have submitted the Vasty name in custom links at vetting sites like The Better Business Bureau and Guidestar that ultimately take one to a summary of data on GlobalGiving. No doubt this is part of an effort to lend legitimacy to the Vasty name (hovering over the links above reveals the trickery).

What proof is there that Vasty isn’t a legitimate charity? None of the dozens of Canadian mules contacted by this author responded to requests for comment. But KrebsOnSecurity received copious amounts of information about this scam from Milwaukee, Wisc. based Hold Security, which managed to intercept key file exchanges between threat actors through public file sharing services.

Among those files were a set of form letters and boilerplate email messages that describe the ideal candidate for the job at Vasty and welcome new recruits to the Vasty payroll. Here’s a look at part of the job description, which includes (not pictured) a description of the healthcare plans and other benefits allegedly offered to Vasty employees.

After congratulating applicants (everyone who applies is “hired”) on their new positions, Vasty asks the recruits to do some busy work. In this case, new hires are sent to local pharmacies on some bogus errand, such as to inspect the pricing of face masks and hand sanitizer products for price-gouging.

“Now we have the first task for you. You will have to perform a trip within your city. So that we can compensate for transportation costs along with your hourly rate, I ask you to keep receipts confirming your expenses.

LOCATION: Sam’s Geneva Street Pharmacy

ADDRESS:  284 Geneva St, St. Catharines, ON L2N 2E8

I ask you to go to the pharmacy at the specified address. We are increasingly receiving reports of private sellers violating the pricing policy for products such as: aspirin, face masks are loose surgical masks with elastic loops that go around the ears, hand sanitizers.”

New recruits are then asked to assemble and submit a written report of their observations at the store in question.

These types of menial, meaningless tasks are a typical tactic of money mule recruitment schemes and they serve two main purposes: They separate out slackers from people who really need and want a job, and they help the employee feel like he’s doing something useful and legitimate (aside from just moving money around, which if brought up too soon might make him question whether the job is legit).

Eventually, after successfully completing one or more of these busy work tasks, the new hire is asked to process a “donation” from someone who wants to help fight the Coronavirus outbreak:

“Please read the instructions carefully. One donor wants to make donations to help fight the coronavirus. As you know, this is a big problem for most countries of the world. Every day we receive information from the World Health Organization that more and more people are sick. Quite a lot of people died from this virus. Some people simply don’t have enough funds to provide themselves with standard face masks and disinfectants to fight the virus.”

“The donor requests that Bitcoins be bought with his funds. For this task, you need to create your Bitcoin wallet, or use the QR code that we send you in this letter. You will receive from the donor up to 3000 CAD. Your commission up to 150 CAD will be included in this amount to cover your expenses. I remind you that you do not need to use your funds to buy bitcoins. The funds will be sent to you. You will need to receive cash atm or at your bank branch.”

What happens next is the employee then receives an electronic transfer of money into his bank account, is asked to withdraw the cash, and to keep 150 Canadian dollars for himself. He’s then instructed to take the remainder of the funds to a Bitcoin ATM and scan an emailed QR code with his mobile phone. This causes the cash he deposits into the Bitcoin ATM to be sent in an irreversible transaction to a Bitcoin wallet controlled by the scammers.

What’s going on behind the scenes is the funds that get deposited in the employee’s account are invariably stolen from other hacked bank accounts, and the employee is merely helping the crooks launder the stolen money into a form of payment that can’t be reversed.

Another boilerplate email intercepted by Hold Security shows Vasty’s new hires manager offering advice to employees who are asked by nosey bank employees about the nature of the funds withdrawal.

“Important: If you receive any questions from the bank regarding the purpose of the payment, you can open part of the instructions if necessary and inform that these funds are intended for payment of medicines. In any case, it is a personal payment and it will not be taxed. However, I strongly recommend that you not divulge the rest of the instructions for paying for medicines against coronavirus so as not to aggravate panic among the population.”

Americans shouldn’t feel left out of the scam: Hold Security founder Alex Holden says his analysts also intercepted a nearly identical set of scam templates targeting job seekers in the United States.

Money mule scammers specialize in hacking employer accounts at job recruitment Web sites like Monster.com, Hotjobs.com and other popular employment search services. Armed with the employer accounts, the crooks are free to search through millions of resumes and reach out to people who are currently between jobs or seeking part-time employment.

If you receive a job solicitation via email that sounds too-good-to-be-true, it probably is related in some way to one of these money-laundering schemes. Even if you can’t see the downside to you, someone is likely getting ripped off. Also, know that money mules — however unwitting — may find themselves in hot water with local police, and may be asked by their bank to pay back funds that were illegally transferred into the mules’ account.

Overall, Holden said, established cybercriminals who specialize in recruiting and grooming money mules for financial crimes have been cooing of late over the potential glut of new mules. One mule vendor on a popular Russian-language crime forum posted Tuesday that his “drops” — the hacker slang term for money mules — weren’t scared of Coronavirus concerns.

“We got drops in masks!,” one vendor proclaimed.

“We continue to work despite the Coronavirus,” declared another drops vendor.

Any readers interested in helping others affected by the Coronavirus outbreak should consider giving through the organization Vasty is impersonating here; Global Giving. Alternatively, these two stories link to a number of other reputable organizations facilitating Coronavirus relief efforts.